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Paige Bueckers lifts UConn back to the Final Four with 80-73 win over.

SportsPaige Bueckers lifts UConn back to the Final Four with 80-73 win over.

Paige Bueckers has led UConn back to the Final Four.Bueckers, who dealt with a string of injuries after a tremendous freshman season, powered the Huskies to an 80-73 win over No. 1 USC on Monday night in their Elite Eight matchup at the Moda Center in Portland. That officially earned UConn its 23rd Final Four berth in program history, and its third trip in the last four years. The Huskies have not lost a regional final game in the NCAA tournament since 2007.

Paige Bueckers has led UConnThe Huskies will now take on Caitlin Clark and Iowa in the Final Four on Friday night in Cleveland. The Hawkeyes pushed past LSU in a rematch of last year’s national championship game to reach the Final Four for the third time in school history in their matchup in Albany on Monday night.

UConn’s win over USC completed the field for the women’s Final Four next weekend. Top-ranked South Carolina will take on NC State on the other side of the bracket. UConn and NC State have sent both their men’s and women’s teams to the Final Four this spring, something that’s not happened in the history of the tournaments.

JuJu Watkins makes history in tight first half
The first half was a battle on Monday night. USC pushed ahead early after opening the game on a 15-6 burst, but then the Trojans needed a small 6-0 run to close the first half and enter the locker room tied up 33-33.

Watkins had 13 of her 29 points in the first half, and she made NCAA history in the process.

Watkins drilled a huge 3-pointer over Bueckers in the second quarter, which brought the Trojans back within a single possession. That pushed the USC star to 899 points on the season, which is the most scored by a freshman in Division I history. San Diego State’s Tina Hutchinson held the record dating back to the 1983-84 campaign.
The Huskies came out firing right away in the third quarter. They went off on a very quick 8-0 run to separate from the Trojans slightly, and then they pushed that to a 17-7 run by the media timeout.

That 10-point lead, which came after an Ashlynn Shade 3-pointer, was the largest by any team up until that point. McKenzie Forbes hit a pair of huge 3-pointers herself during that UConn run to keep USC close, but she was about all the Trojans had offensively in the third quarter.

But finally, USC responded late in the third. They went on a huge 8-0 run late and then traded 3-pointers with UConn before Kayla Padilla hit a buzzer-beater to bring the Trojans back within just four points.

In any different year, the focus ahead of Southern California and UConn clashing with a Final Four berth at stake might be on the programs, not individual players.Paige Bueckers lifts UConn

A school in a regional final of the women’s NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years versus the established powerhouse of the sport getting to a familiar place despite being beset by injuries.

But not this year. Not with fabulous freshman JuJu Watkins on one side and the dogged determination of Paige Bueckers on the other.

“I think we would all tell you, right, it’s USC against UConn, and it’s LSU against Iowa. But star power drives narratives in athletics. It’s why the NBA took off, you know, when there were faces to it, going all the way back to Magic and Larry and Michael Jordan,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I think it’s great for our game. The quality of basketball has been really high and really exciting, but to have stars in these games, I think, makes people tune in.”

The star power will be plentiful on Monday night when the top-seeded Trojans face No. 3 seed UConn in the Portland 3 Region final, the second game of a dynamic twinbill that begins with Caitlin Clark and Iowa facing Angel Reese and defending champion LSU in Albany, New York.

For USC (29-5), it’s the first regional final appearance since 1994 when Cheryl Miller was coaching at her alma mater. The Trojans haven’t reached the Final Four since 1986.

For UConn (32-5), it’s the 28th time in the Elite Eight and the chance at a 23rd Final Four trip in a year where the Huskies have made it this far with an injury-depleted roster.
That’s the broader picture of what’s at stake. But plenty of eyes will be tuning in just to watch what Watkins and Bueckers can do, even if they’re not always matched up against one another.

“This seems like a throwback time to USC, you know? And it’s ironic that this is the first time that we’re meeting in the (tournament), but it goes to show you how long they’ve been away from the limelight,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “One player, one coach can make a difference. Here they are, and here we are. I wish we could both win, but we can’t.”



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