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    NCAA Tournament: USC women rout Kansas, advance to Sweet 16
    • March 26, 2024

    LOS ANGELES — Invisible smoke billowed off her hands just a couple minutes into the second quarter, USC’s McKenzie Forbes catching a pass in transition and draining another 3-pointer, coming back in the huddle and blowing on locked-and-loaded finger guns.

    There is something to her demeanor, to her shot-making, when moments hang in the balance. When momentum can shift at the drop of the hat. JuJu Watkins is this program’s leading woman, but Forbes is their emotional barometer, her shot-making dropping exclamation point after exclamation point as her face remains expressive as a period.

    Forbes was not perfect on Monday night, the second round of USC’s NCAA Tournament push against Kansas. She shot just 6 for 19 from the field to get her 20 points. She racked up six turnovers. But in the most crucial seconds, she was there as she always manages to be, combining with Watkins (28 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) to lead top-seeded USC to a 73-55 victory over eighth-seeded Kansas in front of a jubilant crowd at the Galen Center.

    The Trojans (28-5) advanced to face fifth-seeded Baylor (26-7) in a regional semifinal on Saturday in Portland, Oregon. The Bears knocked off fourth-seeded Virginia Tech, 75-72, in their second-round matchup and will present a test for USC with their offensive depth and activity.

    Forbes made six 3-pointers in all, each seeming more timely than the last, gesturing to the home crowd at one fourth-quarter stall and single-handedly summoning a swell.


    With USC leading by eight early in the second quarter, coming off a steal, Forbes pulled. Bam. Finger-guns.

    With USC up by 10, midway through the second quarter, after a scale-tipping Kansas 3-pointer, Forbes pulled. Bam. 

    With USC up by 11, a couple of minutes later, Forbes caught on the wing and let fly from deep. Bam.

    “It’s great to see her shining, especially right now, when the moment’s even – the spotlight’s even brighter,” teammate Kaitlyn Davis said Sunday. “And you can see the whole crowd light up, too, when she hits those shots.”

    Davis would know, once fierce rivals in the Ivy League. Around a year ago, exactly, Forbes and Harvard knocked Davis and Columbia out of the Ivy League Tournament; the memory still stung to talk about for Davis, leaning against a locker Sunday with a pained smile.

    On Monday night, though, Forbes helped erase a separate unpleasant memory of Davis’ – her Columbia program falling in the WNIT championship last year to Kansas – in beating the Jayhawks (20-13). She buried two more 3-pointers in the third quarter, launching one off-the-bounce transition 3-pointer without any inhibition to extend USC’s lead to 10, coming back in the fourth quarter with two big-time blocked shots to help key a final Trojans push.

    USC’s dream season continues, on to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the early 1990s and the days of Cheryl Miller manning the sideline. The Trojans last went this deep when they reached the Elite Eight in 1994, 10 years after the school won the second of its back-to-back national championships.

    This USC run, though, has been built as much on the back of stifling defense as the shot-making shoulders of Watkins or Forbes. They swarmed in the first quarter, Rayah Marshall warding off Kansas’ 6-foot-6 force Taiyanna Jackson in the paint and guard Kayla Padilla bumping down in the post with as much ferocity as her 5-9 frame could carry.

    Marshall was a force within her minutes early, the frontcourt player’s continued evolution one of the keys to USC’s late-season surge. She had come into Monday with five double-doubles in her last six games; when Jackson tested her on an early hook shot, Marshall swatted it into the stands, walking away with a flex and nose upturned. She finished with four steals and two blocks, and USC forced 11 Kansas turnovers in the first half, taking a nine-point lead on the back of Forbes’ shot-making.

    Kansas, though, made a massive push in the third quarter – just as USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb knew they would. This was a veteran group, coming off the WNIT championship; as USC waited in the tunnel Friday watching Kansas battle Michigan Saturday in overtime, Davis said, the realization came: “Okay, this is March.”

    And the Jayhawks mauled their way to a 9-0 run with time ticking in the third, cutting USC’s lead to one, Kansas’ S’mya Nichols attacking the paint with abandon. Watkins, though, flashed a large stop-sign, draining an above-the-break 3-pointer to bottle up Kansas’ momentum and send the Trojans on a 17-2 run that spanned the end of the third and the start of the fourth.

    Forbes’ leadership – coming both loud and quiet, a super-senior veteran capable of both calming her words and barking in a shrill tone – reared its head proud in the fourth. After an early-period swat by Forbes, she found a wide-open backup big Clarice Akunwafo underneath on a pretty feed, only for Akunwafo to blow the layup and a subsequent putback.

    Back down the floor, Forbes put her arm around Akunwafo in a pick-me-up and whispered in her ear. Poised. Level.

    The next possession down, Akunwafo grabbed a Watkins miss and finished a putback.

    In the game of her life, Akunwafo dominated the fourth quarter, Gottlieb entrusting her with crucial minutes and the senior junior delivering with a flurry of huge offensive boards. She finished with nine rebounds and six blocks, helping close out Kansas as the crowd erupted over late Watkins makes.

    Nichols scored 22 points to lead the Jayhawks, while Taiyanna Jackson had 10 points and 18 rebounds.

    More to come on this story.

    ​ Orange County Register