‘There’s no pressure on us’: Bears to embody underdog mentality against JuJu Watkins, Trojans

The Bears are making their first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2021, and Baylor holds a 57-18 all-time record in NCAA Tournament games. Michael Haag | Sports Editor

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

PORTLAND, Ore. — Keep picking against them, these Bears love it.

No. 5 seed Baylor women’s basketball is set to face USC, the top seed out of the Portland 3 Regional, and the squad knows the Trojans are the popular pick to advance out of the Sweet 16 matchup.

The Bears wouldn’t want folks to think any other way.

“I feel like there’s no pressure on us,” senior guard Sarah Andrews said. “The pressure is on the other team. We’re the underdogs. We have nothing to lose, but we have a lot to gain.”

Baylor (26-7) is less than a week removed from its 75-72 win over No. 4 seed and host team Virginia Tech in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The victory pushed the Bears into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2021, Kim Mulkey’s final year at the helm, which ended with a loss to UConn in the Elite Eight.

Now, they have to get through a USC (28-5) team that has won 14 of its last 15 games, including seven straight. The Trojans’ recent success isn’t a factor to freshman guard Bella Fontleroy, though, as she said “people are betting against us” regardless of the opponent.

“It’s always like that,” Fontleroy said. “But we know what we have. We know how special we are. And last week before we played, Coach Tony [Greene] said we’re mighty when we have each other.”

That togetherness paired with a genuine love of being the underdog makes this the best-case scenario, according to graduate student forward Dre’Una Edwards.

“It’s more fun when you win that way because people doubt you,” Edwards said. “I love to make the doubters mad.”

USC’s ability to be the top seed in its region and a heavy favorite to reach the Elite Eight comes largely on the back of freshman guard JuJu Watkins, a Wade and Naismith Trophy Finalist. Watkins, a First Team All-American according to multiple outlets, has 13 games of 30-plus points, a Trojans record (men’s and women’s) for a single season. That mark also bests Iowa senior guard Caitlin Clark’s previous record of 12 for the most such games by a freshman over the last 25 seasons.

Watkins is a scoring machine, as she ranks No. 3 all-time in single-season scoring by a true freshman in the nation (861 points), and she’s just 12 points away from the No. 2 spot. Watkins’ 861 points in 2023-24 is more single-season points than any USC player — male or female.

Andrews, who was named to the All-Big 12 Second Team this season, said Watkins is a “unique freshman” who will pose problems for Baylor’s defense.

“Not a lot of people can say they have that type of freshman on their team,” Andrews said. “But I think we don’t just have to beat JuJu, we have to beat USC.

“You have to understand she’s going to score the ball. You’re not going to stop her from scoring. … So I think that’s going to be the thing for us is stopping everybody else, too, and letting her have hers but not letting everybody else have a big game.”

Watkins recorded her eighth double-double of the season in the Trojans’ second-round win over Kansas on Monday. USC held the Jayhawks to a KU season-low of 55 points, and the Trojans exploded for a season-high 13 shots from beyond the arc.

Watkins has scored in double figures in all but one contest this season, and she’s scored 20 or more points in 25 of the team’s 32 contests. Baylor sophomore forward Darianna Littlepage-Buggs echoed Andrews’ comments about the importance of making sure those around Watkins don’t get hot.

“We have to stop JuJu, but we have to stop everybody else on the team, as well,” Littlepage-Buggs said. “She’s going to make some tough shots. We just have to live with those shots and keep on playing.”

Tipoff between Baylor and USC is set for 4:30 p.m. CT on Saturday in the Moda Center. The head-to-head series is split at one win apiece, and a Bears victory over the AP No. 3 Trojans would be the highest-ranked win in the Collen era.