April 16, 2024

Lindsay Gottlieb hunched over the back of USC forward Rayah Marshall’s chair as ESPN ticked off names. Two regional brackets went by without the Trojans. Gottlieb gripped Marshall’s shoulder tighter.

“Geezy, relax,” Marshall told her coach, “You’re that girl.”

Gottlieb and the Trojans had no reason to sweat on Selection Sunday. The Pac-12 tournament champions earned the top seed in the Portland Regional 3 bracket and will host No. 16 seed Texas A&M Corpus Christi in the first round at Galen Center on Thursday or Friday. The winner will play No. 8 Kansas or No. 9 Michigan in the second round on Friday or Saturday.

USC (26-5) surged back into the national spotlight behind freshman star JuJu Watkins to make back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time since 2004-06. After upsetting Pac-12 regular-season champion Stanford in the conference tournament final to win their first conference title since 2014, the Trojans claimed their highest NCAA tournament seed since 1986, when Cheryl Miller led them to the national championship game as a senior.

“That’s insane,” guard-forward McKenzie Forbes said of USC’s rare top seed. “I mean, I think it’s just the theme of the year, just bringing ‘SC and L.A. back on the map in the national discussion. I think that means a lot to us and I hope it means a lot to Cheryl and the people who came before us as well.”

On Sunday, Miller watched the selection show from a high table right next to USC’s players in the founder’s club in Galen Center. She threw her arms in the air when USC’s name flashed across the screen as the room packed with donors, family members and alumni cheered and danced.

Before the selection show began, Gottlieb welcomed the crowd, with many wearing cardinal T-shirts with “Let’s Dance!” printed across the front. The Trojans were assured of a high seed. They had no question whether they would be hosting. But Gottlieb still felt butterflies in her stomach on the drive to work.

“I was nervous to continue to make you all proud,” the third-year coach told the full room.

USC will host NCAA tournament games for the first time since 1994 and the first time in Galen Center. The Trojans are 14-2 at home this season amid skyrocketing attendance. The Trojans averaged 3,856 fans at Galen Center this season, more than three times last year’s average of 1,037. During nine Pac-12 home games, USC drew 4,707 fans on average, highlighted by the program’s first sellout against UCLA.

“Home games for us are something we’re grateful for,” said Marshall, who is averaging 10.2 points and 10.5 rebounds. “We embrace [it] and we’re ready to put a show on for our fans.”

Texas A&M Corpus Christi (23-8) will make its first NCAA tournament appearance after winning the Southland Conference tournament over top-seeded Lamar on Friday. After a media gauntlet with local and national interviews, Gottlieb said her coaches would jump straight into scouting the Islanders. The Trojans will return to practice tomorrow as if it’s “day one.”

“We know the celebration stops tonight,” Gottlieb said. “We’re happy with what we’ve done, but we have a lot more to do.”

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