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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    It’s USC-UConn women for a Final Four bid, but more precisely it’s Watkins vs. Bueckers

    UConn guard Paige Bueckers, left, drives against Duke guard Ashlon Jackson (3) during the second half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
    Southern California guard JuJu Watkins (12) yells to teammates as Baylor guard Bella Fontleroy (22) looks on during the second half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Portland, Ore. Southern California won 74-70. (AP Photo/Howard Lao)

    Portland, Ore. — Before the current season even started, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Southern California’s JuJu Watkins sat together at a Nike event in New York and had a chance to chat.

    UConn’s Bueckers was coming off a knee injury which kept her off the court for all of last year. Watkins was entering her first year at USC, where she is now the favorite to be the national freshman of the year, as Bueckers once was.

    “There was, like, a high school all-star event in New York and we talked,” Bueckers said Sunday of her only real interaction with Watkins. “We sat courtside at the game next to each other. We just kind of talked basketball and life.

    “We talked about her kind of transitioning into college, being a freshman, what that was like for her. Definitely, from that conversation, you can tell she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She’s humble and hungry and you could tell from that conversation that she wanted to make an impact right away.”

    On Monday, No. 3-seeded UConn (32-5) meets No. 1 USC (29-5) in the NCAA tournament Elite Eight at Moda Center in Portland Regional 3 (9:21 p.m., ESPN), a berth in the Final Four at stake.

    And in an era where star power is bigger in women’s basketball than ever before, the game is being billed as Paige vs. JuJu. Or JuJu vs. Paige, depending on which coast you’re from.

    On Monday, the Albany Regional 2 final will feature Iowa/Caitlin Clark and Louisiana State/Angel Reese in a rematch of last year’s national championship game at 7 p.m., followed by the Bueckers-Watkins matchup.

    Clark, Bueckers and Watkins are Associated Press first team All-Americans, while Reese was named to the second team.

    “My approach has always been, ‘What do they have that we’re going to have a problem with?’” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of the UConn-USC matchup. “Then it just becomes obsessive, you know. ‘How can we solve that problem? How can we solve that problem?’

    “And then all of a sudden it dawns on you that, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a problem that we may not be able to solve (Watkins) and that’s all there is to it.’ Then the other thing that hits you is, ‘They’ve got a problem that they may not be able to solve (Bueckers).’

    “That’s what makes the game such a beautiful, intriguing expectation is that maybe neither of us are going to solve the problem and maybe some of the other players on each team are going to end up being the difference in the game.”

    Watkins, a 6-foot-2 freshman guard from Los Angeles, is averaging 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game, second in the nation in scoring only to Clark. She scored 30 Saturday in the Trojans’ 74-70 victory over Baylor in the Sweet 16 and has a season-high total of 51.

    Bueckers, a 6-0 redshirt junior who has announced she will return to UConn next year after missing one complete season and a good part of a second due to injuries, averages 21.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. In six postseason games, Bueckers is averaging 27.8 points and 8.5 rebounds, shooting 52%.

    Auriemma calls Bueckers the “best player in America” and that’s certainly no disrespect to Watkins, only a credit to what Bueckers has done in spite of UConn’s injury-prone season.

    Auriemma said he believes his team, led by Bueckers and seniors Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl, understands that it’s USC vs. UConn, not just Bueckers vs. Watkins.

    “Because if we try to make it that — and this has happened a lot — somebody on their team will get 30,” Auriemma said. “Then we’ll all go home and go, ‘Yeah, we lost, but we did a great job on JuJu, man.’

    “It’s got to be our team vs. their team and see how it plays out.”

    Auriemma said he believes Bueckers withheld her disappointment from her teammates at not being able to play last season. He calls this the moment that players like Bueckers and Watkins live for.

    He only witnessed Bueckers break down emotionally once.

    “You knew that when she went home, she was a completely different person at home,” Auriemma said. “You knew that it was killing her and tearing her apart.

    “But great players like that, they carry a light around with them, you know? Because she’s a positive player that shines light on other people. We all know people that, they live in darkness, right? ... They just suck the life out of the room? She’s the opposite. She shines light everywhere she goes.”

    USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb calls the 18-year-old Watkins, “a hooper, a savant, an artist on the court” who is able to focus on basketball despite the unfathomable amount of attention she receives.

    Gottlieb likened the growth of the women’s game this season to the NBA of the 1980s with stars like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, saying it hinges on star power.

    “I saw somewhere today someone tweeted or something, ‘RIP to the viewership numbers,’” Gottlieb said of Monday’s regional finals. “Right? It’s going to crush everything.

    “I think we would all tell you, ‘It’s USC against UConn and it’s LSU against Iowa.’ But star power drives narratives in athletics. I think it’s great for our game. The quality of basketball has been really high and really exciting, but to have stars in these games, I think, makes people tune in.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

    No. 1 USC vs. No. 3 UConn

    Location: Moda Center, Portland, Oregon

    Tip: 9:21 p.m. (ESPN)

    Records: UConn 32-5, USC 29-5.

    Last game: UConn beat No. 7 Duke in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16, 53-45, Saturday; USC beat No. 5 Baylor in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16, 74-70, Saturday.

    Last game’s starters: UConn, 6-3 F Aaliyah Edwards (17.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.6 spg), 5-9 G KK Arnold (8.9 ppg, 3.2 apg, 2.3 spg), 6-0 G Paige Bueckers (21.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.2 spg), 5-11 G Nika Muhl (6.8 ppg, 6.4 apg, 1.2 spg), 5-10 G Ashlynn Shade (11.4 ppg, 1.5 apg).

    USC, 6-2 G JuJu Watkins (27.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.3 spg), 6-0 G-F McKenzie Forbes (14.0 ppg, 3.3 apg), 6-4 C-F Rayah Marshall (10.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 3.0 bpg), 5-9 G Kayla Padilla (8.0 ppg, 2.6 apg), 6-2 F Kaitlyn Davis (6.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg).

    Noteworthy: USC is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1986 when the legendary Cheryl Miller - since named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame - was a senior. USC won national championships in 1983 and 1984 during Miller’s tenure. “I think the awareness and significance of USC’s history and the incredible women that we stand on their shoulders, has been a part of our story this year,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said Sunday. “We are really cognizant of what the USC women’s basketball program has meant to the history of women’s basketball and to us as a team.” ... UConn, meanwhile, which has struggled with depth all season due to injuries, will have to fight that in order to beat the Trojans. Three starters, Muhl, Bueckers and Arnold, played all 40 minutes in a Sweet 16 win over Duke. UConn coach Geno Auriemma was asked how the Huskies might combat fatigue with only a six-player rotation. “They let us go to the (transfer) portal to get some people here tomorrow, which I don’t see happening,” Auriemma said. “We’ve got a 40-point lead after the first quarter, then we can rest, but I don’t see happening either. So, no, there’s no way to mitigate it. It is what it is. This is what we’ve got. This is how we got here and this is how it’s going to end, either for the better or for worse.” ... UConn’s Edwards became the ninth player in program history Saturday to reach the 1,000-rebound plateau. She joins Tina Charles (1,367), Maya Moore (1,276), Rebecca Lobo (1,268), Napheesa Collier (1,219), Breanna Stewart (1,179), Stefanie Dolson (1,101), Jamelle Elliott (1,054) and Gabby Williams (1,007). ... Bueckers (809) became just the second player in UConn history to eclipse 800 points in a season, joining Moore (2010-11). ... The NCAA released a statement Sunday regarding the 3-point lines at the Moda Center, saying they are not the same distance. The statement said that both head coaches in Sunday’s regional final, Vic Schaefer of Texas and Wes Moore of N.C. State agreed to play the game on the court the way it was. The court will be corrected before tomorrow’s UConn-USC matchup. ... This is the third meeting all-time between UConn and USC, the first in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies and Trojans last met on Dec. 7, 2003, in Los Angeles, a homecoming game for UConn great Diana Taurasi. UConn, 2-0 in the series, won 72-69. ... The winner of this game will play either Iowa or LSU in the national semifinals Friday at the Final Four in Cleveland.

    — Vickie Fulkerson

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