June 21, 2024

It’s the star-studded matchup TV executives dreamed about. Paige Bueckers, Connecticut’s senior star, against USC’s freshman phenom JuJu Watkins. The headliners will surely help obliterate any women’s basketball TV ratings records during Monday’s Elite Eight contest. Yet a different matchup will decide who advances to the Final Four.

“It’s USC vs. UConn,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said, “not Paige vs. JuJu.”

Watkins’ top-seeded Trojans face No. 3 Connecticut at 6 p.m. PDT (ESPN) in the Portland 3 Regional final on Monday at Moda Center in a potential changing of the guard in women’s basketball. Since USC last made the Elite Eight in 1994, the Huskies have won 11 national championships to rise as the dominant power that was a magnet for almost every top recruit.

The stars just aren’t aligning in Storrs, Conn., as they had. Monday’s Elite Eight games will feature four of the sports biggest names, all playing on different teams. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark faces Louisiana State and Angel Reese in the Albany 2 Regional final that is a rematch of last year’s national championship game that drew nearly 10 million viewers. The winner advances to play Watkins’ Trojans or Buecker’s Huskies in the Final Four in Cleveland on Friday.

“Seeing this matchup come to life tomorrow, I know it’s going to bring a lot more people, more views, just more attention to women’s basketball,” USC guard Taylor Bigby said. “Growing up, everybody wanted to go to UConn. So even us being in a position where people are probably looking at us like, ‘Oh, I want to go to SC one day,’ it’s crazy to think about.”

The Trojans (29-5) are back in the national spotlight for the first time in decades as Watkins has made a seamless transition to the college game. USC’s first All-American since Tina Thompson in 1997 ranks second in NCAA Division 1 history in scoring by a freshman with 891 points. She trails San Diego State’s Tina Hutchinson (898 in 1984) by seven points.

Bueckers knows what it’s like to be a star freshman. She was the first freshman to win a national player of the year award, claiming the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year and USBWA Player of the Year in 2021.

Watkins and Bueckers first interacted at a Nike event last summer while sitting courtside at a high-school all-star game in New York. They chatted about basketball and life as Watkins prepared to make the transition to college. Bueckers knew the 18-year-old wanted to “make an impact right away.”

“Her confidence, her fearlessness and the ability to just not care that she’s a freshman, and just perform the way that she does at the level that she does, it’s pretty amazing,” Bueckers said.

After two injury-riddled seasons, Bueckers is back to her best self. She’s averaging 27.8 points during the postseason on 52% shooting from the field with 8.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. The 6-foot guard who sat out last season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament leads the Huskies (32-5) in blocked shots (16) and steals (19) during Big East and NCAA tournament games.

“Obviously Paige is their JuJu basically, but as we know from our team, they have weapons all around,” USC guard Kayla Padilla said. “We just have to make sure we’re paying equal attention to everyone on the floor because we know they’re a full threat team.”

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, right, and guard Paige Bueckers talk strategy.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and guard Paige Bueckers are trying to win the Huskies’ 12th national title.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

After losing five expected contributors to season-ending injuries, the Huskies are surviving with a short bench. Second-leading scorer Aaliyah Edwards suffered a broken nose during the Big East tournament, but is averaging 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in the NCAA tournament. Redshirt freshman Ice Brady was the only player to come off the bench in UConn’s regional semifinal game against Duke in which the Huskies let a 20-point third-quarter lead dissolve to five late in the fourth quarter of a 53-45 win.

The victory was one of just four single-digit games the Huskies have played this season. The Trojans specialize in close calls. Including a 74-70 win over Baylor in the Sweet 16, USC has won 12 games by a single-digit margin this season.

Monday’s game will be the first NCAA tournament matchup between USC and UConn. Auriemma, who began his coaching career as an assistant with St. Joseph’s in 1978, recalled when the Trojans “exploded onto the scene” with Cheryl Miller and Paula and Pam McGee in the 1980s. The fact the teams have never met in the postseason until now “goes to show you how long [USC has] been away from the limelight,” the eight-time Naismith coach of the year said.

USC hasn’t made it to the Final Four since Miller’s senior year in 1986, but the team with Watkins and coach Lindsay Gottlieb “seems like a throwback” to the Trojans teams of old, Auriemma said.

“Sometimes when you drop off and you are out of sight, you never come back, you know?” he continued. “One player, one coach can make a difference. Here they are, and here we are. I wish we could both win.”

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