April 24, 2024

India Otto heard the chants before she got the call.

“We want Otto!” the Galen Center crowd started yelling. “We want Otto!”

With less than two minutes to go in USC’s opening game of the NCAA tournament on Saturday, the fifth-year guard unzipped her warmup jacket to reveal her white No. 2 jersey. When coach Lindsay Gottlieb motioned for Otto to check in, the crowd grew even louder.

On the biggest stage, the walk-on from Windward got her shining moment, scoring five quick points in the final minutes of USC’s 87-55 victory over Texas A&M Corpus Christi. The top-seeded Trojans advanced to host No. 8 seed Kansas (20-12) at 7 p.m. Monday in the second round of the Portland 3 bracket.

“It was such a core memory for me,” said Otto, who held three fingers in the air as she ran back on defense after hitting a three-pointer with 43.3 seconds remaining. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life, following us winning the Pac-12 championship. It’s so incredible for us to see the trajectory of the program, and it’s only going to continue to rise and continue to get better.”

The Trojans (27-5) are one win away from their first Sweet 16 since 1994. Freshman JuJu Watkins, who passed Cheryl Miller for the highest-scoring season at USC with 23 points Saturday, has been the primary author of USC’s revival. Ivy League transfers Kayla Padilla, McKenzie Forbes and Kaitlyn Davis headline the deep, talented and tough supporting cast. But the elation on the USC bench for two baskets that had no impact on the result of the game showed that USC’s true strength is its connection as a team.

“You can’t fake how they feel about Otto,” Gottlieb said. “… For us, we carry that as a confidence builder. We have what we need here. We’re in it for the right reasons.”

Otto’s driving baseline layup with 1:09 left, her first two-point field goal of her career, followed by a three-pointer from the wing provided the perfect exclamation point for USC’s first NCAA tournament win since 2006. She drew the loudest cheers. Her teammates erupted on the sideline, falling over themselves in a pile of chaotic joy. Guard Kayla Williams said she started to get light-headed from jumping so much.

USC guard India Otto, center left, celebrates with guard JuJu Watkins after the Trojans' win.

USC guard India Otto, center left, celebrates with guard JuJu Watkins after the Trojans’ win Saturday over Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“Those are the best points I’ve seen all season,” Watkins said as a wide smile split her face. “I was more excited for her than the win.”

Watkins paused and cracked up in laughter.

“Well, no, I’m not going to say that. That’s far. She deserves it, bro. We see her score every day in practice. So to see her come out and just, I don’t know, she lit up the crowd tonight.”

When Otto began at USC, that crowd was just a few hundred people. The Trojans were a fallen dynasty that hadn’t enjoyed sustained success in the current millennium. Five years and a coaching change later, USC was playing in the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year with its first No. 1 seed since 1986 in front of a crowd of 8,386 that cheered so loudly when Otto laced her three through the net that it gave her goosebumps.

“Honestly,” Otto said, “words fall short to describe what that feeling meant to me.”

Otto hadn’t played in a game since Dec. 10, but her impact is consistently felt at USC. She is always the first player off the bench to greet teammates with encouragement and high-fives entering timeouts. In practice she dresses as a scout player, rebounds for teammates and shows her spot-up shooting ability.

“There’s no one as responsible for building this program as Otto,” Gottlieb said. “The way the team reacts when she’s out there just shows the character she has, the huge impact she’s had on our players.”

Players sometimes joke that Otto is a younger version of Gottlieb. Even Gottlieb’s 18-month-old daughter Reese sometimes looks at the team’s poster, points to the 5-foot-9 guard with blonde hair and a thin face and says, “Mama.”

But Otto is “way tougher than I was,” the coach attests. While Gottlieb, who played collegiately at Brown, also was a sharpshooter in practice, Otto is running through screens and taking contact. Then on game days she shrinks to the background, lets her teammates shine and celebrates their highlights.

On Saturday her teammates were thrilled return the favor.

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