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Bueckers has double-double to lead UConn past USC in Elite Eight

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Stuck as a spectator during last year's women's NCAA Tournament, Paige Bueckers didn't waste a moment this time. Every drive to the basket, every deflection on defense, every tumble to the floor was about doing everything possible to get UConn back to the Final Four.

Or, as Huskies coach Geno Auriemma put it, “Today was Paige doing Paige things.”

Bueckers carried UConn to the national semifinals, scoring 28 points in the Huskies' 80-73 victory over Southern California in a regional final 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).

UConn will face Caitlin Clark and Iowa on Friday in Cleveland.

“Today was one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt in my life,” Bueckers said.

Edwards finished with 24 points, and this Final Four trip will rank as one of the most unlikely in 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 the Portland 3 Region a year after seeing a string of 14 straight Final Four appearances snapped.

“I think our coaching staff had to deal with an enormous amount of things this year that we never had to deal with before. I’m really proud of our staff,” Auriemma said.

Bueckers was sidelined by a major knee injury last year when that streak ended. She reached the Final Four as a freshman, when she was the national player of the year, but she hasn't played a full season since because of injuries, even though she made it to the title game with UConn as a sophomore.

Bueckers sat out all of last season but is back and possibly better than ever. On one of the biggest nights in the history of the women's game, following a tremendous performance by Clark in a win over LSU, Bueckers hit 11 of 23 shots and finished with 10 rebounds and six assists.

“Now I’m here with my teammates and coaching staff and going to the Final Four,” Bueckers said. “It’s been a very rewarding journey. I’m super, super grateful for it all. The tough times made me who I am. It’s built my faith. It’s built my appreciation for life and gratitude for anything that gets thrown my way.”

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.

“For the most part, this was a really good basketball game and they beat us,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “They did a little bit better of what they do than we do.”

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.

Watkins missed eight of her next nine shots and UConn built a 12-point lead midway through the third quarter. USC rallied to pull even at 59-59 with 7:21 left after five quick points from Watkins and McKenzie Forbes’ fourth 3-pointer of the game, but the Huskies pulled away late.

“(UConn) played great defense. Every time I got past the first line, someone was there,” said Watkins, who was in tears at the postgame dais.

Forbes finished with 24 points and Rayah Marshall had 11 for the Trojans, who were seeking their first Final Four appearance since 1986.

“I don’t know Paige personally, but to see that kid be out for two years and come back and do this, as much hurt as we’re in, they earned it, and I credit them,” Gottlieb said.

DOUBLE-DOUBLE

UConn and North Carolina State could play a Final Four of their own. Each school sent its men's and women's team to the national semifinals, the first time in NCAA history that two schools have done that in the same year.

UP NEXT

Considering the stage it’ll be played on, the matchup between Bueckers and Clark will get even more attention than facing Watkins in the Elite Eight. The two met in the Sweet 16 in 2021, when both players were freshmen; UConn won 92-72.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness