USC’s Rayah Marshall carrying dominance into Sweet 16 matchup with Baylor

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Rayah Marshall has a rather particular vocabulary. Her coaches know it. At times, when speaking with media, USC’s gregarious center will substitute interesting nouns in the middle of standard sentences or pull a random anecdote from thin air.

So her emphasis on a program-wide team motto, after USC’s practice Wednesday, seemed simply perhaps another Rayah-ism: “No punks in here.”

This saying, Marshall said, started when assistant Beth Burns arrived in 2022, a grizzled no-nonsense defensive mind. Burns’ brows furrowed, confused, at mention of it. Rayah being Rayah. But head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, a unique linguist herself whose favorite term – juicy – has penetrated USC’s vocabulary, smiled ear-to-ear Wednesday at Marshall’s comments.

For months, through conference play and the Pac-12 Tournament, USC has been bruised and battered by an assortment of hyper-physical programs. They’ll only face more in the Sweet 16, starting in a matchup with fifth-seeded Baylor (26-7) on Saturday, the Bears scrappy and versatile and used to playing bigger than their roster indicates.

So Gottlieb and her staff have entered locker rooms and delivered the message: No punks in here. They’re trying to punk us. We can’t get punked.

“Can’t let someone take the ball out of your hands,” Gottlieb said Wednesday. “Can’t let someone be more aggressive than you.”

For a solid month – in seven consecutive wins en route to the Pac-12 Tournament championship and through the first two rounds of the tournament – top-seeded USC has been the aggressor, no matter the matchup. The Trojans came out last Saturday and delivered a swift uppercut to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, going on a 21-0 run in the first quarter. They came out Monday against Kansas and devoured the Jayhawks’ frontcourt early, forcing a flurry of turnovers and swatting away layups.

More than the shot-making of JuJu Watkins or McKenzie Forbes, it’s USC’s defense and physicality – this, Burns can attest to – that has gotten them this far, the rallying cry that seeps into every defensive rotation.

No punks in here.

And this anti-punk movement has been spearheaded by Marshall, in name and execution. Watkins and Forbes deservedly drew the shine and accolades in the Pac-12 Tournament, but Marshall was their most irreplaceable piece, the center battling UCLA and Stanford’s fearsome frontcourts and averaging nearly 15 rebounds a game in Las Vegas.

As a sophomore last year, the 6-foot-4 former Lynwood High star was unquestionably dominant, the focal point of the Trojans’ roster and a nightly double-double who stuffed 3.5 shots a game. She was long, Burns affirmed, in a conversation last month. She was bouncy, around the rim. But the stats masked slight lapses in awareness, where Marshall didn’t have a complete grasp on Burns’ and USC’s coverages.

“Her numbers might be slightly down, but I would tell you a hundredfold, she is a much better defensive player,” Burns said of Marshall in February. “Not even close. Not even in the same stratosphere.”

“She is elite in some of our ball-screen coverages – like, elite,” Burns emphasized, later. “Top-five nationally, in how she can cover and get back and protect.”

When the year began, Marshall was so efficient and active inside – scoring in double figures in eight straight games – she started drawing good-natured Shaq-Kobe talk around USC, the pairing of her and Watkins working dividends. But she missed USC’s Jan. 14 win over UCLA with an illness. And when she returned, Marshall looked lost.

She scored two points, total, in back-to-back losses to Utah and Colorado. In a subsequent win at home over Washington State, Marshall finished just 1-of-5, her footwork tentative in the paint and shoulders slouching after a missed third-quarter jump hook. She averaged 2.6 points a game and shot 24% from the floor in the five games since that missed UCLA win, USC going 2-3 in that stretch, their season briefly sinking without their customary anchor in the paint.

Heading into a late-February weekend series in Arizona, an assistant pulled Marshall aside for a set-it-straight conversation. Have some type of pride, Marshall remembered hearing. If she had two feet in the paint, she needed to score. If she had two feet in the paint, she couldn’t let anyone score over her.

“Obviously, that just put like a, ‘Wake up,’” Marshall described in early March.

Since arising from an extended slumber, Marshall has unlocked USC’s starting lineup. In her past seven games, across a war of Pac-12 games and a tournament in Vegas that left her with a black eye, her numbers have been staggering: 13.1 points a game, 12.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 2.4 blocks. She has settled comfortably into a complementary offensive role, finding touches on rolls and short-range jumpers.

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