Paige Bueckers lifts UConn back to the Final Four with 80-73 win over JuJu Watkins and USC

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — After being a spectator a year ago, Paige Bueckers is headed back to the Final Four after scoring 28 points and lifting UConn to a 80-73 win over Southern California in the women’s NCAA Tournament on Monday night.

Bueckers outdueled fabulous USC freshman All-American JuJu Watkins, sparking a decisive run over the final five minutes that sent third-seeded UConn (33-5) to its 23rd national semifinal, the most of any school. Leading 65-64, the Huskies scored 11 straight points, including seven from Bueckers and a three-point play from Aaliyah Edwards to finally put away the top-seeded Trojans (29-6).

Edwards finished with 24 points, and this Final Four trip will rank as one of the most unlikely in coach Geno Auriemma’s 39-year tenure. Beset by injuries that left them with only eight healthy players — including the loss of two starters — the Huskies managed minutes, fouls and exhaustion to win their regional final a year after seeing a string of 14 straight Final Four appearances snapped.

Bueckers was sidelined by a major knee injury last year when that streak ended. She was determined to get the Huskies back to that stage, and did it by hitting 11 of 23 shots and finishing with 10 rebounds and six assists.

UConn will face Caitlin Clark and Iowa in the national semifinals on Friday.

A day after the NCAA belatedly realized the 3-point line at one end of the court at Moda Center was 9 inches shorter than the other, the Trojans and Huskies played on a corrected floor — albeit with the incorrect line still visible — with the final spot in Cleveland at stake.

And it was the Huskies celebrating at the end, although it was a shaky finish. UConn missed six free throws in the final minute and let a 12-point lead dwindle down to five.

Watkins concluded her freshman year by scoring 29 points, but UConn made it difficult for her to get clean looks at the rim with regular double-teams and constant switching of defenders. Watkins took about 15 minutes to score the eight points needed to move past former San Diego State star Tina Hutchinson for the most by a freshman in NCAA history. Watkins’ 3-pointer at the top of the key midway through the second quarter gave her the record.

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