Paige Bueckers and UConn end magical season for JuJu Watkins and USC


Not so fast, freshman.

JuJu Watkins propelled USC to a meteoric, magical, mesmerizing one-year rise to get back into the national championship conversation after decades of irrelevance. Paige Bueckers, Connecticut’s senior guard, ended it.

Bueckers starred in UConn’s 80-73 win over top-seeded USC in the Portland 3 Regional final Monday at Moda Center with 29 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, reasserting UConn’s position as an inevitable dominant force in the sport. The Huskies (33-5) return to the Final Four to face top-seeded Iowa on Friday in Cleveland. The Hawkeyes won the Albany 2 Region on Monday 94-87 over defending champion Louisiana State.

UConn played in 14 consecutive Final Fours before last season’s disappointment while the Trojans were mired in anonymity before Watkins chose her hometown school over established powers. When the nation’s top-ranked recruit committed to USC, the Trojans were coming off a 12-16 season in coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s first season.

Less than a year-and-a-half later, the Trojans played in their first Elite Eight since 1994. Less than a month ago, they celebrated their first Pac-12 title since 2014. They were in back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since 2006 with more almost guaranteed to come.

Even if it felt like unfinished business Monday, this is why Watkins chose her hometown school — for moments like this.

“Everything and more,” Watkins said of whether the season lived up to her hopes. “Of course, we fell short in the end. But like Lindsay said, it’s been a great ride. I have the best teammates in the world. Just glad that …”

She cut herself off as tears welled in her eyes and she covered her face with her hands.

USC’s first All-American since Tina Thompson in 1997 used her yellow jersey to wipe away tears as she walked through the handshake line. UConn coach Geno Auriemma and Bueckers each wrapped Watkins into tight embraces to whisper encouragement.

“For her to have the year she had as a freshman — fearless, confident, one of the best players in the country — she’s got a lot to build on,” Bueckers said. “I know getting here, feeling this loss — we’ve been a part of it — it’s very motivating.”

The Minnesota native who sat out the majority of the previous two seasons because of knee injuries put the Huskies up by 12 with 4:14 to go in the third quarter by intercepting a pass near midcourt and dashing for a transition layup. The Trojans hadn’t trailed by double figures since losing to Utah on Feb. 25.

But facing a UConn team that dressed only eight players and played seven, USC chipped away. Kayla Padilla drained a corner three at the third-quarter buzzer to draw the Trojans to within five. McKenzie Forbes hit a three from the wing that tied it with 7:21 to go, focing a UConn timeout.

USC built its success this season by winning tight games and wearing down opponents. The Trojans had 12 single-digit wins this season.

But they hadn’t faced a talent like Bueckers.

The UConn star led the Huskies on an 11-0 run during the fourth quarter, scoring seven points. When she knocked down a three with Forbes’ hand in her face to put the Huskies up by six with 3:43 to go, she pouted her lower lip and clenched both fists down by her sides.

“I did the best that I could,” said Forbes, who finished with 24 points and three assists. “Anytime that you have a short mental lapse, she capitalized on it.”

While Bueckers was knocking down difficult shots and setting up Aaliyah Edwards (24 points, six rebounds), the Trojans struggled to find rhythm. They shot just 32.9% from the field, their fifth-worst effort this season. Watkins was just nine for 25 from the field and two for six from three-point range.

Watkins proved her ability with the most prolific scoring season for a freshman in Division I history — her 920 points passed Tina Hutchinson’s previous record of 898 set in 1984 — but she is already thinking of ways to improve. With eyes red from tears, Watkins said was looking forward to getting back in the gym and working on her efficiency from the field.

It’s that work ethic that had Forbes reminding her that the college game has to deal with Watkins for three more years.

“If I was a coach, [that] would be my worst nightmare,” said Forbes, who added that “it’s scary” how much Watkins can still improve. “But I think more than how good she is, like, Coach G kind of alluded to, it’s really rare that you get a superstar that can come in. She’s selfless. She’s mature. She’s a winner. She only cares about winning. … Seriously, I would want to be her teammate every day of the week.”

Tears welled in the graduate transfer’s eyes as she choked out the words. Watkins bowed her head on the table to hide her own tear-stained cheeks.

“I’m just grateful that I got to be a small part of her journey,” Forbes said. “I think SC women’s basketball is in great hands.”



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