UConn women’s basketball beats USC, advance to Final Four

PORTLAND, Ore. —The UConn women’s basketball dynasty proved itself alive and well at Moda Center on Monday as the No. 3 seed Huskies upset No. 1 seed USC 80-73 to advance to a Division I record 23rd Final Four under coach Geno Auriemma.

After a devastating upset Sweet 16 ended UConn’s 14-year streak of Final Four appearances last season, the Huskies are returning to the final weekend of March Madness to face Albany 2 regional champion Iowa on Friday in Cleveland. UConn last advanced to the national championship game in 2022, where it finished runner-up to South Carolina.

“Today was one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt in my life, just seeing where I was a year ago today … Now I’m here with my teammates and coaching staff and going to the Final Four,” superstar guard Paige Bueckers said. “It’s been a very rewarding journey, and 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.”

The Huskies started off sluggish, allowing an 8-0 run early in the first quarter to trail by as many as nine points. Shooting was a problem for both teams, but especially for UConn going 0-for-4 from 3-point range. The Huskies shot 6-for-15 from the field and trailed the Trojans 17-15 after a quarter, though USC went just 6-for-18 from the field and 1-for-6 from 3-point range.

Bueckers exploded into the second quarter, but USC’s freshman phenom JuJu Watkins went with her. The Huskies senior had 15 points at halftime on 5-for-11 shooting, also leading the team in assists with four. Watkins went nearly shot for shot with Bueckers, going 4-for-8 for 13 points plus four rebounds.

Bueckers continued to dominate out of halftime, finishing with 28 points shooting 11-for-23 plus 3-for-6 on 3-pointers. She logged her third double-double of the tournament with 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks. All-American forward Aaliyah Edwards also powered the second-half effort, finishing with 28 points, six rebounds and two steals.

“Today (Paige) was playing against somebody who plays like they’re superhuman. I think JuJu was probably the toughest matchup that any of those guards had throughout the entire season — maybe since they’ve gotten to Connecticut,” Auriemma said. “But for Paige, this is what (she) lives for … When you have players that think like there’s nothing I can’t do, there’s nothing that escapes me, they’re just on another level. They play the game on another level. They think on a different level. They inspire everybody around them.”

UConn’s defense limited Watkins in the first quarter to just five points, and they exploited the rookie on the dribble forcing four turnovers against her. The USC star was held to just three points the entire third quarter, though she put up 13 in the fourth to finish with 29 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.

“The kid gets 25 every night, so we’re not going to hold her to 10. We just can’t let her get 40, and it can’t be easy,” Auriemma said. “We tried to have somebody always in the general vicinity whenever she got the ball and put it on the floor and started going. It was never going to be her just attacking somebody one-on-one. But she’s so good at getting to her spots … and creating contact, finishing through contact. She just doesn’t play like a freshman at all … but I think we made her work exceptionally hard.”

Freshman Ashlynn Shade struggled to shake a shooting slump that left her with zero points in the Sweet 16, and coach Geno Auriemma brought Qadence Samuels off the bench four minutes into the first for her first appearance since the Huskies’ first-round matchup with Jackson State. The freshman delivered, draining UConn’s first 3-pointer of the game with six minutes left in the first half to extend an 8-0 run that helped the Huskies to a 33-33 deadlock entering the halftime locker room.

Auriemma leaned on his bench more than he has at any other point in the postseason, even amid 20-plus point blowouts during the Big East Tournament. Redshirt freshman Ice Brady checked in alongside Samuels midway through the second quarter, marking the first time that UConn played multiple reserves together since the fourth quarter against Jackson State. Brady was critical to the defensive effort on Watkins and logged eight points on 3-for-4 shooting in 18 minutes.

But with just eight players available, foul trouble quickly became a concern for the Huskies in the second half. Senior point guard Nika Muhl was assessed her fourth with more than two minutes left in the third quarter, and all five starters were playing with at least two fouls by the end of the third. However, the Huskies made it to the final buzzer without a single player fouling out, while USC lost starting forward Kaitlyn Davis to a fifth foul in the last 30 seconds.

“KK had four fouls and Nika had four fouls, and there it did cross my mind, I know she’s going to foul out and I’m going to have to put KK in an impossible situation as a freshman. I just crossed my fingers and prayed,” Auriemma said. “Because she did that in shoot-around today. She did something stupid and fouled somebody and I lost my mind. She goes, I won’t do that tonight. I said, Yes, you will. I’ve seen it over four years … Did I trust she would be able to do it? No, but I prayed.”

USC refused to let UConn pull away as Kaitlyn Padilla followed up a corner 3-pointer from Brady with a buzzer-beating three at the end of the third quarter to make it 55-51 UConn entering the fourth. The Trojans tied the game at 59 points with seven minutes left to play, but Bueckers responded with five unanswered points to open up another double-digit lead.

The Huskies had a near-disaster in the final seconds, allowing a 7-0 run with seven missed free throws in the last minute of the game, but Muhl ended the scoreless streak by making two baskets at the line to make it a 7-point game with 16 seconds remaining.

“When it all comes together, it’s just a beautiful thing. I was really taken aback by the celebration. That was pretty cool,” Auriemma said. “You can tell it still means a lot you know? We did it 3,000 files from home. God forbid. No one ever thought we could win a game outside of Storrs, Connecticut. I’m glad we were able to win one out here.”

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