April 24, 2024

Lindsay Gottlieb paused to collect her thoughts. How could she summarize Clarice Akunwafo’s career highs in blocked shots and steals on the biggest stage of USC’s season?

“Clarice,” the USC coach said, “is something else.”

Not only was the 6-foot-6 center a defensive trump card that stymied Kansas in an NCAA tournament second-round victory that sent USC to its first Sweet 16 since 1994, but the Inglewood native is also helping the Trojans establish themselves as a national championship contender while pursuing a career in medicine. She hopes to become a surgeon after basketball.

Working with USC staff to incorporate her grueling class schedule with practices and games while loading up her academic schedule during the summer, Akunwafo admits balancing the demands of athletics and academics hasn’t been easy. Freshman year was bad, she emphasized. Yet rebuilding a fallen dynasty on the court isn’t simple either. With belief from her coaches and teammates, Akunwafo seems especially fit for both tasks.

“Lindsay always supports my dream to be a doctor, that’s why I really stayed,” Akunwafo said. “She supports me and I’m going to support her and always have her back.”

Akunwafo is USC’s tallest player since 2017. She was a McDonald’s All-American out of Rolling Hills Prep in San Pedro, where she was a three-time All-CIF first team divisional honoree. She was always a superior athlete, but Gottlieb praised Akunwafo’s offseason work to get into “incredible shape.”

She proved her mettle by leading the Trojans to a win over previously undefeated UCLA in Galen Center in January a game Marshall missed because of illness. She held UCLA star Lauren Betts to 10 points and three rebounds, then delivered career bests in blocked shots (six) and steals (three) against Kansas’ Taiyanna Jackson to go along with nine rebounds.

“I would put Clarice against any big in the country,” guard JuJu Watkins declared after Monday’s 73-55 victory.

USC center Clarice Akunwafo shoots at close range against Kansas on Monday nigh.

USC center Clarice Akunwafo shoots at close range against Kansas on Monday night, when she had career highs in blocked shots and steals.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Sitting next to the star freshman at the postgame news conference, Akunwafo reached over and patted Watkins on the back in appreciation. Graduate transfer guard McKenzie Forbes whispered to Watkins that her announcement sounded like a challenge to the rest of the country.

“I don’t care,” Watkins said while smiling and throwing her hands up.

With a slew of headline-worthy performances from supporting players, USC has reason to be confident. Akunwafo’s heroic defensive night was just the latest example of the depth that makes the top-seeded Trojans (28-5) so dangerous.

Even if other teams tout star forwards like Jackson, who had 18 rebounds and 10 points against the Trojans, USC draws confidence from its one-two post punch of Akunwafo and Rayah Marshall.

“A lot of gratitude for how [Akunwafo] stays ready no matter what,” Gottlieb said. “A night like tonight showcases what she’s really good at, which is defensively she’s so strong and patrols that paint. … We always say, whoever they have as their big — and Jackson is good — we’ve got Rayah and C.”

Marshall and Akunwafo both signed with USC under the previous coaching staff. Marshall, a McDonald’s All-American from Lynwood, was Gottlieb’s first call when the former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant took the coaching job in 2021. She knew the 6-4 forward would be a critical building block for the program that was trying to recapture the energy of its ’80s and ’90s heyday.

Trojans center Clarice Akunwafo defends as Kansas center Taiyanna Jackson attempts a shot Monday night.

Trojans center Clarice Akunwafo defends as Kansas center Taiyanna Jackson attempts a shot Monday night.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

With an emphatic block on Kansas’ first offensive possession, Marshall set the tone defensively. Then Akunwafo carried it on. She played almost all of the fourth quarter as the Trojans outscored the Jayhawks 20-9.

“That girl, she freaking dominated,” Marshall said. “Without her, I don’t know what the outcome of this game would be like.”

In the locker room Monday night, Marshall marveled when remembering that when she and Akunwafo were freshmen, USC didn’t even qualify for the WNIT. Now she was packing her bag for the Sweet 16. The Trojans will face No. 5 seed Baylor in the Portland 3 regional semifinal on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. PDT (ESPN).

After the Trojans went 12-16 during Gottlieb’s first season, six players transferred. Akunwafo didn’t waver. She stayed for moments exactly like the one she had Monday, nudging Marshall at the final horn while they glanced toward the top rows at Galen Center where fans stood and cheered.

“I have a lot of faith in Lindsay,” Akunwafo said. “She always said this is what she wanted, and we got here.”

Akunwafo admits that when she came to USC, basketball was not her top priority. She already knew she wanted to pursue medicine. Her athletic pursuits felt almost like a hobby compared to her ultimate career goals.

Marshall remembered that when they entered as freshmen, Akunwafo maybe wouldn’t have thought twice if she fouled out of a game. This year, picking up her fifth against Stanford during the regular season almost had her in tears.

“I love these girls so much and I want to play for them,” Akunwafo said. “We want to win and we want to go all the way to the natty.”

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