SPORTS DIGEST: USC, UCLA women’s teams advance to Sweet 16 

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Normally, this column would be about the Dodgers opening the 2024 baseball season with a four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals starting at 1 p.m. March 28 at Dodger Stadium.

But since the Dodgers opened the season March 20 in Seoul, Korea, today’s column will lead with the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, which features both USC and UCLA.

After hosting the first two rounds of the tournament at Galen Center and Pauley Pavilion, respectively, the Women of Troy and Lady Bruins travel to Portland and Albany, New York, respectively where they will play March 30. UCLA faces defending NCAA champion LSU at 10 a.m. on ABC. USC faces Baylor at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN.

UCLA advanced to the Sweet 16 with a hard-fought 67-63 win over Creighton March 25. The Lady Bruins won their tournament opener against Cal Baptist, 84-55.

Against Creighton, UCLA trailed by as much as 10 points in the third quarter before rallying to win behind sophomore point guard Kiki Rice, who scored 13 of her 24 points in the third quarter as the Lady Bruins rallied to tie the score heading into the final quarter.

UCLA then held Creighton to seven points in the final 10 minutes and scored just enough to win.

Rice led the Bruins with 24 points while center Lauren Betts bounced back from a leg injury that forced her to miss the Cal Baptist game to score 20 points and add 10 rebounds.

Sophomore Gabby Jaquez had a solid overall game with 8 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists, which helped overcome an off night for senior guard Charisma Osborne.

Osborne made only 2 of 8 shots on the night and was held to 5 points. She added 6 rebounds and 4 assists.

The Bruins are the second seed in their tournament bracket, but they will have their hands full against LSU, the third seed. The Lady Tigers finished second in the Southeast Conference to South Carolina. They have a 30-5 record and are led by Angela Reese, one of the top five players in women’s college basketball.

Reese averaged 18.7 points and 13.2 rebounds a game on the season. Coach Kim Mulkey, who has gotten more attention off the court this week than on the court, utilizes a four-guard, one forward lineup with Reese the anchor in the center.

They have six players averaging 10 or more points a game, although one of them — Sa’myah Smith — hasn’t played since November.

The key matchup might be Reese against Betts inside. Reese has the better overall stats — Betts averages 14.9 points and 9 rebounds a game — but Betts is an inside force who is hard for anyone to handle alone.

Osborne, who guides the offense, needs to have a better game than she did against Creighton. UCLA also needs continued strong showings from Rice and Jaquez.

The winner of this game probably gets to face Iowa and Caitlin Clark April 1.

USC faces a Baylor team that is 27-7 on the season and won the NCAA title as recently as five years ago.

Unlike USC, which is led by freshman sensation JuJu Watkins, Baylor has a balanced attack. Six players average between 11.7 and 8.2 points a game. Forward Dre’Una Edwards leads the way with 11.7 points a game, followed by guard Sarah Andrews, who averages 11.3 points a game. Andrews leads the team in assists with 3.9 a game and Aijha Blackwell leads the team with 8.3 rebounds a game.

Watkins, who is in the upper echelons of the women’s game as a freshman, leads the Women of Troy with 26.9 points a game and 2.4 steals.

Guard McKenzie Forbes is second in scoring to Watkins at 14 points a game while leading the team in assists at 3.3. 

Junior center Rayah Marshall from Lynwood is averaging 10.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks a game.

USC dominated the fourth quarter against Kansas March 25 to advance to the Sweet 16. The Women of Troy led by 12, 46-34, in the third quarter before Kansas rallied to close the gap to 46-45 with 1:20 to play in the quarter. 

USC scored the last six points of the quarter and then outscored Kansas 20-9 in the fourth quarter for the win that wasn’t as easy as it looked.

Watkins scored 28 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, had 5 assists and 2 steals. Forbes was the only other player scoring in double figures with 20 to put the Women of Troy into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994, when Cheryl Miller was the coach and Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson were the two stars. USC lost in the Elite 8 round that season.

The road to the Final Four gets rougher from here. The winner of USC-Baylor faces the winner of the Duke-Connecticut game April 1.

USC needs sound performances from Watkins and Forbes once again if they are to advance that far.

MEN’S TOURNAMENT: USC and UCLA may be missing in action in the NCAA men’s tournament, but that doesn’t mean Los Angeles is being left out. L.A. hosts the Western Regional Finals March 28 and 30 at Arena downtown.

Arizona faces Clemson at 4 p.m. in the first game March 28 followed by Alabama versus North Carolina. The two winners play March 30 with the winner advancing to the Final Four. 

Clemson surprised Baylor to make the regional semifinals, but North Carolina, Arizona and Alabama all belong here, even though the final game March 30 may be overshadowed by the women’s games.

OHTANI CLOUD: The Dodgers and Shohei Ohtani didn’t need any more attention than they already were receiving this season. Last week’s revelation that Ohtani’s longtime interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, had a gambling problem and had possibly taken money from Ohtani to pay off his gambling debts put even a brighter spotlight on Ohtani, something neither the player or the team needed.

Mizuhara has been fired, replaced by Will Ireton, a longtime Dodgers’ employee who used to serve as Kenta Maeda’s interpreter. Major League Baseball and law enforcement authorities are investigating Mizuhara and Ohtani has said he will cooperate with the investigations.

In a 12-minute news conference March 25 in which he did not take any questions, Ohtani called Mizuhara a liar and a thief and said he had never bet on sports in his life or used an illegal bookmaker.

The Dodgers went 1-1 during their season-opening trip to Korea and face the Cardinals for four games as the rest of Major League Baseball starts. The Dodgers are once again favored to win the National League West and have one of the most potent lineups in baseball.

But as the season starts, there are question marks with the starting rotation and the middle of the infield defense.

With Mookie Betts, Ohtani and Freddie Freeman leading the lineup, the Dodgers will score a lot of runs this season. But the team’s other Japanese import, pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, was shelled in his start against the Padres March 21, giving up 5 runs and 4 hits in an inning of work in the Padres’ 15-11 win.

Not one of the five pitchers in the Dodgers rotation as the season starts was there at this time last season. Bobby Miller came along in May and Gavin Stone followed. The other starters — Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow and James Paxson — all are new to the team.

Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw may be back later in the season, but until then manager Dave Roberts will be walking a high-wire tightrope, hoping his bullpen pitches like it did last year and that the offense can outhit everybody. It is not necessarily a recipe for success.

STIRRING COMEBACK: That was quite a comeback by the Lakers March 26. They trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by 19 points early in the fourth quarter with LeBron James on the sideline in street clothes. 

The Lakers rallied to force overtime, then won 128-124 in double overtime behind a triple double by Austin Reaves and 34 points and 23 rebounds by Anthony Davis. 

It shows what a dangerous team the Lakers can be as the playoffs loom ever closer.

Yes, the Lakers are still ninth in the NBA Western Conference, apparently headed for the play-in tournament again. But the Lakers proved last year they are a dangerous playoff opponent and no one wants to test them if Davis and James are playing at their highest levels.

Reaves, who had 29 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists against the Bucks, makes the Lakers even more dangerous. So does D’Angelo Russell, who scored 29 points against the Bucks and is averaging 20.9 points in his last 10 games, a stat that would be even better except for two sub-par games against the Sacramento Kings. 

Take away those two games and Russell is averaging close to 24 points a game over eight games.

The Lakers are improving at a time the Clippers are flailing. Since March 9, the Clippers haven’t been able to beat anybody but the 34-38 Chicago Bulls and the 19-53 Portland Trailblazaers. 

They have beat the Bulls and Trailblazers twice apiece in that time. They are 0-6 against everybody else. 

Head coach Tyronn Lue called the Clippers “soft” after a 133-116 loss to Indiana March 25. The Pacers lost to the Lakers, 145-140 the night before but still had enough to outscore the Clippers 68-54 in the second half. To be fair, the Clippers also were playing a back-to-back. 

The Clippers were 34-15 Feb. 5 after going 6-1 on the so-called Grammy Road Trip. Since then, they are 10-12 and are struggling to stay ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans in the race for fourth place in the Western Conference, which would give them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook returned to the lineup March 25 against the Pacers and scored 14 points in 18 minutes. James Harden hasn’t scored more than 20 points since sitting out back-to-back games March 14-15.

Harden is averaging only 13 points a game over his last eight games. Lue might want to give him some more rest now that Westbrook has recovered from his broken hand.

The Clippers will need Harden at full strength if they are going to make a run in the playoffs this year.