Bueckers’ basketball brilliance too much for Juju, USC

Paige Bueckers and UConn will now take on Iowa in the Final Four on Friday in Cleveland.

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.

The 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 27 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.

UConn fends off USC late

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.

Then just minutes into the fourth quarter, Forbes drilled a wide-open 3-pointer to tie the game right back up.

But it was Bueckers who took over down the stretch. She went on a mini 5-0 run herself with a perfect move in the post and a contested 3-pointer from the top of the key to send the Huskies right back in front.

From there, UConn held on the rest of the way — despite missing seven straight free throws at one point — to grab the seven-point win and get back to the Final Four.

Watkins finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds for USC. Forbes added 24 points on five 3-pointers. The duo combined for 53 of USC’s 73 points. Center Rayah Marshall finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Bueckers led UConn with 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the win for the Huskies. It marked her seventh straight game with at least 20 points, too. Edwards added 24 points and six rebounds while shooting 7-of-13 from the field.

UConn and Iowa will now square off in the second game on Friday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, following South Carolina’s game against NC State.