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Field Level Media - Professional sports content solutions | FLM

Mar 19, 2024 4:04 pm

USC, Ohio State on collision course in Portland

JuJu Watkins

Pursuit of its first Final Four appearance since 1986 begins at home in the NCAA Tournament Portland 3 Region for top-seeded Southern California against the same opponent where the Trojans’ road began.

USC (26-5) earned its No. 1 seed with an impressive collection of marquee wins, not the least of which was an 83-74 defeat of the Buckeyes to open the campaign. That meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 6 set a fitting tone both for the Trojans overall, and for freshman phenom JuJu Watkins.

Watkins debuted with 32 points, setting her on pace for a season average of 27 points per game. She won Pac-12 Conference Freshman of the Year and helped USC to the league-tournament crown with three wins over NCAA Tournament teams: Arizona, UCLA and Stanford.

Battle tested? Seven of the Trojans’ last eight opponents dating back to Feb. 18 are in the tournament field.

“I think we earned it,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said of landing a No. 1 seed. “I’ve been in this business long enough to know these things are hard. For our program, it’s a big step. We know the work starts now, but we’re going to take a moment and recognize the work our players did.”

The work starts for the Trojans on Saturday against No. 16 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, champion of the Southland Conference and NCAA Tournament newcomer.

The Trojans’ matchup with the Islanders is 1-of-2 opening-round contests at USC’s Galen Center in Los Angeles on Saturday, with the winner advancing Monday to meet the winner of eighth-seeded Kansas and ninth-seeded Michigan earlier in the day.

“Playing at home … in front of our fans, and just being able to wake up like it’s a regular day, headed to our gym to face an opponent not in our conference, in the NCAA Tournament, how do you even explain that?” USC’s Rayah Marshall said of looking forward to playing in Los Angeles.

The Sweet 16 awaits March 30 in Portland.

If the Trojans get there, they could see Baylor or Virginia Tech. Both spent long stretches of the regular season ranked in the top 10, and each head into the NCAA Tournament with 24 wins.

Fourth-seeded Virginia Tech could be without All-ACC center Elizabeth Kitley when the Hokies open at home in Blacksburg, Va., against No. 13 Marshall. Baylor awaits the winner of a First Four matchup between Vanderbilt and Columbia.

The lower half of the Portland 3 Region bracket includes Ohio State, which ascended to as high as No. 2 in the regular-season poll with such noteworthy wins as Iowa and Indiana to its credit.

Should the Buckeyes make it through No. 15 seed Maine on Sunday then either seventh-seeded Duke or No. 10 Richmond, a potential Sweet 16 encounter with perennial powerhouse UConn awaits.

The Huskies cruised to the Big East Conference championship, recovering from a start that was slow – by the program’s lofty standards, at least. UConn dropped three games by Dec. 3, but heads into the NCAA Tournament at 29-5 overall.

Paige Bueckers has been electric in her return from missing the entire 2022-23 season, leading UConn with 21.3 points per game.

The Huskies open against No. 14 Jackson State, with No. 6 Syracuse or 11th-seeded First Four opponents Arizona or Auburn in the 2nd Round.

With a rematch against Ohio State or a showdown vs. a UConn program that boasts 11 national championships as a potential hurdle to the Final Four, USC’s path to a first national semifinal in 38 years is treacherous. But that has been the Trojans’ schedule throughout the 2023-24 season.

–Field Level Media

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