March Madness: USC thwarts Baylor upset bid with late rally sparked by freshman star JuJu Watkins

After opening a six-point halftime lead, No. 1 seed USC found itself in a Sweet 16 battle with fifth-seeded Baylor on Saturday.

But freshman star JuJu Watkins closed out a 74-70 Trojans win with a big fourth quarter that included a tie-breaking layup in traffic and seven made free throws in pressure situations. She scored nine straight USC points in the critical late stages of the game en route to 30 points, six rebounds, four assists and four blocks.

"It means everything," Watkins told ESPN postgame. "This is a moment I've dreamed of. I didn't think it would happen so fast, honestly. I'm just glad that I'm able to be a part of this team that's so special. It's just a testament to what can happen if you follow your dreams."

Bears threaten upset

Baylor did its best to end those dreams early. The Bears kept pressure on throughout the third quarter then took a 50-49 lead on a Sarah Andrews 3-pointer with 2:56 remaining in the quarter.

The lead was Baylor's first since the first quarter. From there, it was a back-and-forth battle that saw Baylor take a 64-61 lead late in the fourth as Watkins went through a 13-minute scoring drought that included seven straight missed shots.

Watkins takes over

But Watkins broke the cold spell when it mattered most. She grabbed a rebound after a Baylor miss, then ran a one-woman fast-break that ended with an and-one layup over a pair of Baylor defenders.

The bucket and ensuing free throw turned a 64-64 tie into a 67-64 lead. It was part of an 8-0 USC run that gave the Trojans a 69-64 lead with 1:49 remaining.

Watkins hits free throws in tense final moments

USC then had a chance to take a four-point lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation. But Kaitlyn Davis missed a layup in traffic, setting up a close possession call after the ball bounced out of bounds at the baseline. Officials ruled on the floor that Baylor touched the ball last and didn't overturn the call following a lengthy replay review.

USC retained possession and inbounded the ball to Watkins with five seconds remaining on the shot clock. Bella Fontleroy then inexplicably fouled Watkins on the perimeter, setting Watkins up for a pair of free throws. She hit both to extend USC's lead to 71-67.

Baylor's last gasp falls short

But Baylor wasn't done. Andrews banked in a 3-pointer from the corner on an inbounds set to cut USC's lead to 71-70 with 22.8 seconds remaining.

Baylor then fouled Watkins again to extend the game. Watkins answered again with two makes at the line to extend the lead to 73-70. This time, there was no Baylor answer.

Andrews missed a 3 on the other end, and Rayah Marshall closed the game out with a free throw to extend USC's lead to 74-70 with 7.5 seconds remaining.

Watkins scored nine straight USC points in the late fourth-quarter run before Marshall's free throw iced the win. Watkins finished 12 of 13 at the line and hit all seven of her free throw attempts in the fourth.

USC advances to Monday's regional final in Portland to face No. 3 seed UConn. The Huskies beat No. 7 seed Duke Saturday night to advance to the Elite Eight matchup. The winner of that game advances to the Final Four.