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Top Freshmen Watkins of USC and Kansas' Nichols Square Off in Bid for Women's NCAA Sweet 16 Berth
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By Associated Press
Published 3 weeks ago on
March 25, 2024

USC and Kansas vie for a Sweet 16 spot in a high-stakes matchup, highlighting standout freshmen Watkins and Nichols' record-breaking seasons. (Shutterstock)

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LOS ANGELES — JuJu Watkins and S’Mya Nichols used to face off in AAU ball. There will be much more at stake when the freshmen standouts lead their teams against each other in the NCAA Tournament.

The High-Stakes Match

Watkins and No. 1 seed Southern California (27-5) take on Nichols and eighth-seeded Kansas (20-12) on Monday night at Galen Center. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 in the Portland, Oregon, 3 region.

USC last reached the Elite Eight in 1994, when the Trojans lost to Louisiana Tech. Kansas’ last trip to the Sweet 16 came in 2013, when the Jayhawks were beaten by top-seeded Notre Dame.

Standout Freshmen

Watkins was chosen as an Associated Press All-American. She took down Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller’s single-season scoring record in USC’s first-round win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Nichols was an All-Big 12 first team selection after leading the Jayhawks with a 15.2 scoring average. Her 471 points during the regular season were the most by a Kansas freshman since 1979.

“I feel like there’s a whole bunch of dogs,” Nichols said Sunday. “The freshmen this year really broke out, proved their points, proved themselves and was a great addition to the teams that they’re on.”

Supporting Casts

Watkins and Nichols are surrounded by veteran supporting casts.

Coach Lindsay Gottlieb jokingly calls the USC squad “JuJu and the Nerds,” a reference to the three Ivy League graduate transfers who start alongside the stellar freshman and junior Rayah Marshall.

“So many great pieces to this team,” Watkins said. “Everyone brings something to the table, and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

Nichols is the youngest among the Jayhawks starters. Taiyanna Jackson, Holly Kersgieter and Zakiyah Franklin are fifth-year seniors and Wyvette Mayberry is a senior.

“I can’t remember a freshman class that’s playing at a level like this,” ninth-year Jayhawks coach Brandon Schneider said. “You look just in our conference, we had to pick an all-freshmen team of five players, and there were probably eight or nine that were deserving. Every conference you can immediately name an impact freshman. And that’s something that has not happened a great deal in my time in collegiate women’s basketball.”

Key Matchup

Another matchup features the 6-foot-6 Jackson against the 6-4 Marshall. Both were all-defensive selections in their leagues. Marshall has had double-doubles in five of USC’s last six games.

“Whoever can dominate the paint will produce the most for their team,” Marshall said. “If I can stop her, if I can box out and keep her out of the paint, it’ll open up drives for my bigs.”

For her part, Jackson wants to limit USC’s second-chance opportunities.

“It’s very important because they’re a lot bigger,” she said. “We have to be tougher than them. That’s something we always talk about as a team.”

Previous Performance

The Jayhawks eked out an overtime win against ninth-seeded Michigan in the first round. Franklin’s tying 3-pointer bounced on the rim and dropped with 12 seconds left in regulation and then the Jayhawks dominated in overtime to advance.

“There wasn’t one moment where we weren’t on the same page throughout that entire sequence of being down and coming back,” Kersgieter said. “We just trusted each other that we’re all going to make plays.”

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