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Watkins debuts with 23 points in USC's 87-55 NCAA Tournament blowout of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

LOS ANGELES (AP) — JuJu Watkins turned the ball over the first time she touched it in her NCAA Tournament debut.

“I gave myself a little grace knowing it was the first play,” she said, smiling. “I haven't played in two weeks. That's crazy.”

Watkins and top-seeded Southern California did little else wrong, with the stellar freshman scoring 23 points and leading the Trojans to an 87-55 victory over 16th-seeded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Saturday.

“She had a terrific debut and made all the right decisions,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “JuJu handles the weight of everything with just a grace you can’t describe.”

The Trojans (27-5) also got 23 points from McKenzie Forbes in a first-round game they dominated from the opening tip.

“We were definitely itching to play,” said Forbes, a Harvard transfer.

The 16th-seeded Islanders (23-9) scored the first basket, then the Trojans took over. Watkins hit a 3-pointer to launch a 21-0 run in which five different players scored.

“Amazing player. We knew how big of a task it would be,” TAMCC's Alecia Westbrook said. “We tried to slow her down and limit her shots but she had a good game.”

The Islanders managed just one other basket in the first quarter and it came as time expired. They scored 16 points in the second quarter and trailed 36-20 at halftime.

“Playing this big of a stage, it was kind of a shock moment,” said Westbrook, who had 12 points.

Mireia Aguado, one of six players from Spain on the roster, led the Islanders with 15 points.

USC poured it on in the third, outscoring the Islanders 35-21. The Trojans closed on a 20-5 run to lead 71-41 going into the fourth. Kayla Padilla hit consecutive 3-pointers and Forbes made two straight 3s of her own with Watkins on the bench resting.

Watkins was 8 of 18 from the floor and 1 of 6 from 3-point range. She went 6 for 7 at the foul line and collected five rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals before sitting down with 3:37 remaining.

“I don't think JuJu was hot today,” Islanders coach Royce Chadwick said. “What does she do when she's hot?”

Watkins, an Associated Press All-American, has seen about every defensive scheme possible this season, but there was little the Islanders could do to contain her. The freshman's 51-point game at Stanford was the most by any Division I player this season, and she broke Caitlin Clark's record with 13 games of 30-plus points in her first season.

The Trojans had 14 blocks and 14 steals and forced the Islanders into 19 turnovers. Rayah Marshall added 10 points and 11 rebounds.

USC advanced to a second-round game Monday against eighth-seeded Kansas.

WATKINS' RECORD

Watkins broke USC's single-season scoring record, recording her 815th point in the first quarter. The old mark of 814 was set by Cheryl Miller in 1985-86.

“I wasn't even aware that happened,” Watkins said. “I’m just grateful to be in that mention and to be in that legacy.”

Hall of Famer Miller returned to the USC fold this season, sitting courtside to cheer on the team and offer advice to Watkins. Miller led the Trojans to national championships in 1983 and '84.

INDIA SHOOTS AND SCORES

Little-used reserve India Otto got into the game for USC with two minutes remaining. She made the most of it, going 2 for 2 with a 3-pointer that drew the loudest cheers of the night from the crowd of 8,386.

“Those are the best points I've seen all season,” Watkins said. “She deserves it. We see her score every day in practice. She lit up the crowd.”

Otto is in her fifth and final season. The graduate student recalled how different things are now compared to when she arrived.

“My first year there was nobody in the stands,” she said. “I literally got goosebumps after I hit that 3. Words fall short to describe what that feeling meant to me.”

REFEREE DOWN

A referee working the game was injured early in the second quarter. Michael Price left after running down the floor alone and falling. He got up and clutched at the back of his upper left thigh. He walked around the court in obvious pain and a USC trainer checked on him during a timeout. He was replaced by standby Demoya Pugh, which left two women and a man officiating the first-round game in Los Angeles.

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