April 18, 2024

The lights shining behind Rayah Marshall on the dais at Moda Center were almost blinding. The 6-foot-4 USC forward just walked by a bracket printed on a poster that stood taller than her head. She was getting ready for practice on the court in an NBA arena.

But even as the biggest stage she’s played on gets larger with each week, Marshall insists she’s got nothing to be stressed about.

“We live in L.A. There’s so much to be happy about,” the Lynwood native said with an innocent grin. “We come outside to palm trees and it’s sunny. We have fun doing what we do. We compete. … And I mean, when you’re winning, it’s a ton of fun.”

USC’s ability to keep its joy while playing with urgency amid mounting postseason pressure has led to the program’s most successful stretch in decades. In the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994, the top-seeded Trojans face No. 5 Baylor in the Portland 3 regional semifinal on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. PDT (ESPN). The winner plays No. 3 Connecticut or No. 7 Duke in the regional final Sunday.

Although the Trojans (28-5) are the No. 1 seed in their region, they’re playing with the looseness of an underdog who remembers the feeling of getting picked to finish sixth in their conference. The mix of joy and urgency is what coach Lindsay Gottlieb called, “our secret sauce.”

“I think it’s allowed us to play without the weight of the world on our shoulders,” the third-year coach said. “Allowed us to focus on what it takes to get a game won. That’s a lot of grit and toughness, but at the same time, if you’re playing stressed, that doesn’t work either.”

USC has won 14 of its last 15 games, including the Pac-12 tournament championship that clinched its first No. 1 national seed since 1986. The year — Cheryl Miller’s final collegiate season — was also the last time USC went to the Final Four.

The Portland 3 region, which already lost two of its top four seeds in the second round, is up for grabs heading to this year’s Final Four site in Cleveland. Baylor is making its first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 2021 after ending Virginia Tech’s 26-game home winning streak in the second round.

Despite no player in their rotation standing taller than 6-foot-1, the Bears (26-7) ranked third in the Big 12 in rebounding margin (7.4) and rebounds per game (40.2). They’re 21-1 when outrebounding opponents this season. Aijha Blackwell, a 5-foot-11 forward, leads Baylor with 8.3 rebounds per game.

Baylor’s scrappy play and rebounding ability stood out most to USC guard McKenzie Forbes when asked Friday about her impressions of the Bears. The same question worked its way across the stage to Marshall, who was sitting between Forbes and freshman JuJu Watkins.

“I’m expecting it to be a dogfight,” Marshall said. “They’re going to come out and bring everything they have. So will we.”

Watkins, answering last, leaned forward into the microphone for a single word: “Yeah,” she deadpanned to put the period on the press conference. The players smiled as they stepped off the dais.

Watkins, whose 833 points this season is the most for any USC basketball player in a season, has been the face of USC’s resurgence. Her signature bun hairstyle has gone viral as the subject of an AT&T commercial airing during March Madness games.

To the Trojans, however, the 18-year-old is just the same “Ju” they see every day. She even got stuck in the back row of the van to Moda Center on Friday as Marshall, Gottlieb and Forbes took the front rows.

“I’m sick of this seniority stuff,” Watkins joked. “We couldn’t put Kenzie in the back, her knees are bad. She’s old. Everybody else is old so I just take one for the team.”

The 23-year-old Forbes clapped her hands and chuckled. Marshall went back to USC’s locker room to tell the rest of her teammates about the freshman’s antics in front of reporters. At 8:40 a.m., the room was wide awake with laughter.

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