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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    UConn women hit the Final Four with an 80-73 victory over USC

    UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards, left, and guard Paige Bueckers celebrate the win over Southern California in an Elite Eight college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Howard Lao)
    UConn guard Paige Bueckers reacts as the game ends during an Elite Eight college basketball game against Southern California in the women's NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
    UConn assistant coach Jamelle Elliott, left, and head coach Geno Auriemma, right, react to a call during the first half of an Elite Eight college basketball game against Southern California in the women's NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
    UConn guard Nika Muhl (10) cheers after an Elite Eight college basketball game against Southern California in the women's NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Portland, Ore. UConn won 80-73. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)
    UConn guard Paige Bueckers, right, hugs guard Nika Muhl after their win over Southern California in an Elite Eight college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament, Monday, April 1, 2024, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Howard Lao)

    Portland, Ore. — The injuries kept piling up and the doubts kept creeping in until on a Monday night in Portland the box score read: Paige Bueckers, 40 minutes; Nika Muhl, 40 minutes; Aaliyah Edwards, 40 minutes.

    And yet there the UConn women’s basketball players were a few moments after the final horn sounded, waiting to celebrate their most recent victory — the one that would send them to their unprecedented 23rd Final Four — with Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma.

    The Huskies were poised and sitting at their lockers, holding the bottles of water with which they would soon shower their coach.

    “It’s a great feeling. It’s just a great feeling,” UConn senior Edwards said. “We’ve been through so much this year, last year. I think we really had to work hard for this win and work hard for how far we’ve come.

    “Obviously, you guys see us, what we do on the court, but it’s really behind the scenes that we’re really, like, grinding it out. We had to go through a lot. We went through a lot together.”

    Bueckers finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and a pair of blocked shots, earning Most Outstanding Player honors, as third-seeded UConn defeated No. 1 Southern California 80-73 in the NCAA tournament’s Portland Regional 3 final before 10,869 fans at the Moda Center.

    It was the third regional Most Outstanding Player honor of Bueckers’ distinguished career, coming after a knee injury which sidelined her all of last season. Bueckers went 720 days between NCAA tournaments.

    This season the misfortune continued, with six season-ending injuries on the Huskies’ roster: Azzi Fudd, Jana El Alfy, Caroline Ducharme, Aubrey Griffin, Amari DeBerry and Ayanna Patterson.

    “Although a lot of people didn’t believe we were ever going to do this, we did,” said Muhl, a UConn senior guard. “Don’t get me wrong, we don’t really care what other people think. At the same time, it feels really, really good to prove those people wrong.”

    The Huskies advanced to the Final Four, which will be played at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland. UConn (33-5) will meet Iowa (33-4) in the national semifinals beginning at approximately 9:30 p.m. Friday, joining South Carolina and N.C. State among the four teams to reach the season’s final weekend.

    With Monday’s game featuring the star power of UConn’s Bueckers and USC freshman JuJu Watkins, both first team All-Americans, Watkins had 29 points and 10 rebounds and McKenzie Forbes had 24 points for the Trojans (29-6).

    Edwards had 24 points and six rebounds for UConn, joining Bueckers on the all-tournament team, and Muhl had eight points and eight assists.

    With UConn leading by as many as 12 points at the 4:14 mark of the third quarter on a steal and a layup by Bueckers, Watkins responded with a three-point play and USC tied the score 59-59 on a 3-pointer by Forbes with 7:32 remaining in the fourth.

    Auriemma called a timeout, followed by a jump shot by freshman Ice Brady on an assist from Muhl and a drive by Edwards to give the Huskies back their mojo.

    After Watkins carved the UConn lead back to 65-64, Bueckers spun and hit a jump shot, sending the Huskies off to the races for an 11-0 run.

    Bueckers hit a 3-pointer, Edwards followed with a three-point play and then it was back to Bueckers, who took off from one foot and lofted an off-balance floater for two points. Muhl finished the run with a free throw, padding UConn’s lead at 76-64 with 1:25 to play.

    Muhl played with four fouls from the 3:05 mark of the third quarter and freshman KK Arnold also had four.

    “When they do win and they do accomplish something that’s really difficult to accomplish, you get excited for them,” Auriemma said. “You feel their excitement. Even though you probably don’t have it in you to feel that way because I’m tired.

    “When it all comes together, it’s just a beautiful thing. I was really taken aback by the celebration. That was pretty cool. You can tell it still means a lot, you know?”

    There were times, Auriemma said, that he didn’t know how much longer the Huskies could last with their thin roster. Even at breakfast Monday morning, he thought they looked lethargic.

    “I’m a very realistic person,” the coach said. “I don't try to put unrealistic expectations on players. When I watched them after what’s happened, I did think it would take a miracle (to get to the Final Four).

    “Yesterday was Easter. Easter is a celebration of miracles, right? And today is April Fool’s Day. It’s either a miracle or a cruel joke. But we'll get there next week and find out if it’s real.”

    At halftime, the score was 33-33, but UConn was bordering on foul trouble. Arnold had three fouls at the half and Muhl, Edwards and Ashlynn Shade had two each, with subs Qadence Samuels and Brady finishing the half.

    UConn fell behind 15-6 but reeled off nine straight points to tie it, starting with a three-point play from Bueckers and followed by two field goals from Edwards and two free throws by Bueckers.

    USC led 17-15 at the end of one quarter.

    The Huskies took their first lead at 21-19 at the 7:00 mark of the second quarter on a basket by Arnold, assisted by Bueckers. Samuels, in the game in place of Shade, drained a 3-pointer to give the Huskies a five-point edge at 24-19.

    A Bueckers 3 made it 31-25 UConn, giving the Huskies their biggest lead of the half with 3:28 to play in the second, but USC scored the final six points of the half, knotting the score at 33-all.

    “I really want to credit UConn,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I mean, they earned their way to a Final Four. I don’t think we gave it to them. I think they earned it.

    “Sometimes to have the perspective and think about what another team has been through, I think is really important. With the injuries they’ve had, with the way that coach Geno adjusted throughout the course of the year, I just credit them a ton.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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