March 31, 2024 

Duke and Baylor ousted in Portland, but future is bright

USC and UConn won their respective games to become the final Elite Eight teams, but the losing teams showed exciting future

PORTLAND, Ore. — Looking towards the Trojan bench as the minutes ticked down in their Sweet 16 matchup against Baylor you could see a sea of red. They stuck out because entire sections were standing, and the standing contingent only grew as the game came down to the wire. The anticipation level was too high for sitting.

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The USC fans were electric inside the Moda Center all game. Throughout the 40 minutes, they were loudly and constantly chanting ‘defense,’ doing call-and-response with the band and spirit squads, or just holding strong with classic chants. The players, already making up a joyous group that loves to have fun, fed off of this energy.

Senior leader McKenzie Forbes had her family in the stands but she particularly felt and appreciated the love from the large group of fans. Forbes showed this by blowing a kiss to their supporters after sinking a big three-point shot early in the fourth quarter, putting USC back in the lead. The very large USC fan contingent went crazy, standing and cheering as the team gathered around the bench, having forced a Baylor timeout.

“That was for all the Trojan fans,” Forbes told media after the game. “This is by far the most fun season of basketball I’ve ever had and I think it has everything to do with my teammates and the staff. And, obviously, winning is really fun too.”

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Head coach Lindsay Gottlieb believes it is that joyousness combined with urgency that has made them so successful.

Before the game, Gottlieb said that what makes them good is “this ability to sort of juxtapose joy and a looseness and a bit of a freedom with an urgency. Winning is really hard, especially at this point of the year. I think it takes those two things.”

Gottlieb continued, “I think it’s allowed us to play without the weight of the world on our shoulders, allowed underdogs to focus on what it takes to get a game won. That’s a lot of grit and toughness, but at the same time, if you’re playing stressed, that doesn’t work either. I do think that’s been some of our secret sauce, so to speak, is we’re able to do both things at once.”

Emblematic of that balance, Forbes had a ton of fun, but she also was the controlled, high-IQ, vocal leader she always was for her team. She is so smart and full of wisdom in her leadership that Watkins likened her to Yoda.

“She’s just super smart,” Watkins elaborated. “She’s always just encouraging me and really speaking to me in times when I need it during the game. So she’s just a great leader and I’m just glad to have that type of leadership my first year.”

Rayah Marshall had her teammates and the room all laughing and joining in their joy as she apologized for swearing when quoting JuJu Watkins and explained how she called in her “inner JuJu” to take the win-sealing free throw after not trying at all to be the player fouled.

McKenzie Forbes points two fingers in the sky as she screams in celebration of USC's victory as cheerleaders and team personnel clap around her.
Mar 30, 2024; Portland, OR, USA; USC Trojans guard McKenzie Forbes (25) celebrates after a game against the Baylor Lady Bears in the semifinals of the Portland Regional of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at the Moda Center. Photo Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

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Rebounding battle

Heading into this matchup Baylor was 21-1 when outrebounding their opponents. On Saturday, they pulled down 44 rebounds to USC’s 41, just beating them on the boards.

“You know, to out-rebound a team that has more size than us at absolutely every position, I thought we were relentless on the boards,” head coach Nicki Collen commended her team post-game.

Unfortunately for the Bears, they couldn’t get those rebounds in what were perhaps the most key moments.

With 30 seconds left in a two-point game, the Bears forced Kaitlyn Davis to miss a layup but the Trojans crashed the glass just well enough. They didn’t allow Baylor a clean rebound and were able to retain possession on the out-of-bounds.

Down by three points with 20 seconds left in the game, Baylor got off a deep three attempt for Sarah Andrews who had banked one in on the Bears’ previous possession to make it a one-point game. Andrews’ attempt missed and Marshall was able to secure the rebound, forcing Baylor to foul, sending the graduate student to the free-throw line. The forward hit one of two but it was enough, pushing the lead to two possessions.

Despite being unable to come up with that crucial play at the end Baylor played well.

“I thought when you look at the box score, I thought we did a lot of things really well,” Collen said. “We won almost every statistical category except free throws. … I thought these guys battled like crazy against JuJu, made her inefficient, made her make tough shots, take tough shots, make tough shots.

Baylor feels they sent a message in this game that they can compete with anybody, despite the defeat.

“I know people don’t pick us to win, necessarily, but we’re going to come out and fight, and we’re going to keep continuing to try to upset whoever’s put in front of us. So I’m really proud of our team and the way we played,” Jada Walker said post-game.

Andrews, piggy-backing off Walker, told media, “I think people are going to be scared for next season. I think everybody’s going to be looking to see how Baylor grows. We put everybody on alert.”

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South Carolina averaged 46.3 rebounds per game this year. Since 1988, only two teams that won the national championship have averaged more boards per game: 1988 Louisiana Tech and 1995 UConn.

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Duke’s offensive struggles

To say that Duke couldn’t buy a bucket in the first half would be an understatement. The Blue Devils scored in single digits in each of the first two quarters, heading into the half with only 13 points and an equal number of turnovers. Despite shooting an abysmal 20.8% from the field and 1-9 from three, UConn only had 23 points at the same mark.

The young ACC team played strong defense. Head coach Kara Lawson told media after the loss, “I thought defensively we played well enough to win. That’s, obviously, a high-powered offense. We were out of sorts and out of rhythm on the offensive end and just weren’t able to, until late, get enough points on the board.”

Both teams picked up their offense in the second half, but Duke continued to struggle, and hitting 42% of their shots was not enough. They had open and easy looks that they missed and could have made a difference as their defense propelled a fourth-quarter surge.

Part of that struggle was caused by UConn’s defense but not all of it. “I think both teams deserve their share of the credit,” Lawson said. “I think [UConn] did a great job of making it difficult for us. And I think we did a poor job when we did get opportunities, whether it was converting in transition — we had a lot of two-on-ones and three-on-ones that we fumbled. And we did not finish. And those are points that are valuable that you need to convert on.”

This was the first Sweet 16 for every player on Duke’s roster, and it showed. This contributed somewhat to the misses of wide-open shots that they would usually hit.

“I thought initially I was trying to let them grow into the game because it was the first Sweet 16 for everybody on our roster, and we were scattered to start. We did not look like ourselves,” Lawson said.

“The issue was it was everybody. A lot of times normally … there is one player or two players, you kind of can pull them out and put someone else in and settle. And it was, like, all of them. And so I couldn’t sub them all. We need to have five players. That’s a rule, I think, out there,” Lawson added lightheartedly.

In the end, plenty of positives and negatives for a young Duke team on Saturday. But, as Lawson told her team after the game, “I’m just really proud of them, proud of the season we’ve had and all the growth we’ve had.”

Reigan Richardson soars in the air lifting the basketball up toward the basket as Paige Bueckers jumps behind her trying to block the shot but not getting close.
Mar 30, 2024; Portland, OR, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Reigan Richardson (24) scores a basket during the second half against UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) in the semifinals of the Portland Regional of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at the Moda Center. Photo Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is blooming in Waco

Since Kim Mulkey departed Baylor for LSU, Waco media has perpetuated the general narrative that the program has withered without her. This narrative of decline showed nationally early on Saturday when the Washington Post published Kent Babb’s in-depth profile of Mulkey. Babb wrote, “Baylor is no longer among the sport’s upper tier, another structure abandoned and left to wither.”

After their down-to-the-wire defeat head coach Nicki Collen addressed this directly. She did not read the article but had seen the above portion, telling media that she was “really, really offended by the article that came out.”

“Nothing is withering in Waco. And we’re going to do it our way. And it’s going to be just as good… You can’t get to the Sweet 16 and take a number one seed down to the wire in a one-possession game and say anything’s withering in Waco.”

Collen concluded her press availability by saying, “There’s some stuff blooming in Waco. So if he wants to come to Waco and write an article about it next year, he’s welcome.”

Written by Bella Munson

Bella has been a contributor for The Next since September 2023 and is the site's Seattle Storm beat reporter. She also writes for The Equalizer while completing her Journalism & Public Interest Communication degree at the University of Washington.

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