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USC’s JuJu Watkins is in the March Madness spotlight ahead of Sweet 16 against Baylor

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — For USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, the JuJu Watkins phenomenon became plainly evident on a road trip this season when a quick autograph session snowballed.

After a game in Colorado, the Trojans noticed a young autograph seeker waiting outside the team bus. Watkins was asked to oblige and all the sudden there was a throng of fans angling for her signature.

“As soon as she’s signing that autograph, like 50 other people come running down a hill for their autographs. We’re like, `Whoa, get ready for this,’” Gottlieb said. “We’ve seen different moments along the way. I can’t say enough about her demeanor and her grace kind of in handling everything. That’s just who she is.”

Watkins and the top-seeded Trojans face fifth-seeded Baylor on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament. Third-seeded Connecticut plays No. 7 Duke in the later game as the the teams vie for a spot in the Elite Eight.

An AP first-team All-American as a freshman, Watkins is averaging 26.9 points this season, second only to Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, who set the game’s all-time Division I scoring record this season.

Watkins made a splash in her college debut with 32 points in an 83-74 victory over Ohio State. She scored a season-high 51 points in a 67-58 win over Stanford on Feb. 2.

The hometown kid who went to Sierra Canyon in Los Angeles is handling the spotlight with aplomb.

“Just me making the decision to stay home, the great environment that I’m in, my teammates always pushing me to be better, everybody just wants the best for me,” Watkins said. “I think that has allowed me to really strive to be great and be in a place where I feel accepted.”

Watkins is one several freshmen in women’s basketball playing beyond their years. Another is Texas’ Madison Booker, who is also in Portland on the other side of the bracket, and Notre Dame’s Hannah Hildalgo.

“As a fan of the game watching players across the country, we get a front-row seat to JuJu every day, what she handles, what she does as a freshman,” Gottlieb said. “I really don’t know if there’s been a better freshman season by anyone ever, given everything she’s done to elevate our program, everything that comes with it.”

Watkins had 28 points and 11 rebounds for the Trojans (28-5) in a 73-55 victory over Kansas to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994.

Baylor (26-7) downed Virginia Tech 75-72 to advance. Jada Walker led the way with a career-high 29 points.

Baylor coach Nicki Collen said Watkins presents a unique challenge for the Bears.

“I think when JuJu’s in transition, that’s the most challenging space,” Collen said. “When she has space to operate, she’s such a rhythm player. Very similar to Maddie Booker in our league. When she gets to her spots, really dangerous because of her size.”

THE JUJU BUN

Watkins is not just drawing attention for her stellar play, she’s also turning heads with her distinctive hairstyle that’s been dubbed the “JuJu Bun.”

She’s even in a television commercial with Joel Embiid for AT&T that showcases her look.

Despite her celebrity, Watkins is still dealing with those unwritten freshman rules.

“I was sitting at home at the beginning of March Madness and see Joel Embiid in a commercial, and all of sudden there is JuJu, and I’m like, when have you seen the reigning MVP in a commercial with a kid that our teammates just made sit in the back of the car?” Gottlieb laughed.

Watkins kidded in response: “I’m sick of this seniority.”

DIFFERENT OUTCOME?

The winner of the game between USC and Baylor will earn a spot in the Elite Eight, facing the winner of UConn’s game against Duke.

Paige Bueckers matched her season high 32 points when UConn held off Syracuse 72-64 to earn a 30th straight trip to the Sweet 16.

Last year, UConn fell to Ohio State in the Sweet 16, ending the Huskies’ streak of 14 straight Final Four appearances. The team was without Bueckers for the season with a torn ACL.

“I think we’re a different team, different mindset and we’re hoping for a different outcome,” coach Geno Auriemma said.

Reigan Richardson scored 28 points when Duke rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit to beat No. 2 seed Ohio State 75-63. The Blue Devils also rallied from behind in their first-round game against Richmond, winning 72-61.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

By ANNE M. PETERSON
AP Sports Writer

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