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March Madness: Paige Bueckers drops 28 points, leads UConn past USC to reach Final Four

March Madness: Paige Bueckers drops 28 points, leads UConn past USC to reach Final Four

Paige Bueckers led UConn to the Final Four.

Bueckers, who dealt with a series of injuries after a tremendous freshman season, led the Huskies to an 80-73 victory over No. 1 USC on Monday night in an Elite Eight game at the Moda Center in Portland. That earned UConn officially its 23rd Final Four berth in program history, and its third trip in the last four years. The Huskies haven't lost an NCAA Tournament regional final game since 2007.

The Huskies will now face Kaitlin Clark and Iowa in the Final Four on Friday night in Cleveland. The Hawkeyes beat LSU in a rematch of last year's national championship game to reach the Final Four for the third time in school history in the game in Albany on Monday night.

UConn's win over USC completed the field for next weekend's Women's Final Four. Top-ranked South Carolina will face NC State on the other side of the bracket. UConn and NC State sent their men's and women's teams to the Final Four this spring, something that has never happened in the tournament's history.

JuJu Watkins makes history in tight first half

The first half was a battle Monday night. USC pulled ahead early after opening the game with a 15-6 run, but then the Trojans needed a 6-0 mini-run to close out the first half and go into the locker room with a 33-33 tie.

Watkins had 13 of her 27 points in the first half, making NCAA history in the process.

Watkins hit a huge 3-pointer over Bueckers in the second quarter, bringing the Trojans back to within one possession. That pushed the USC star to 899 points on the season, the most scored by a freshman in Division I history. San Diego State's Tina Hutchinson holds the record dating back to the 1983-84 campaign.

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UConn holds off USC late

The Huskies came out firing right away in the third quarter. They went on a very quick 8-0 run to pull away from the Trojans, then pushed that to 17-7 after the media timeout.

That 10-point lead, which came after Ashlynn Shade's 3-pointer, was the largest of any team to that point. McKenzie Forbes hit a pair of huge 3-pointers herself during UConn's run to keep USC close, but it was pretty much all the Trojans had offensively in the third quarter.

But finally, USC responded late in the third period. They took a late 8-0 lead and then traded 3-pointers with UConn before Kayla Padilla hit a buzzer-beater to put the Trojans back within four points.

Just minutes into the fourth quarter, Forbes hit a wide-open 3-pointer to tie the score.

But it was Bueckers who took over down the stretch. She went on a 5-0 mini-run of her own with a perfect move in the post and a contested 3-pointer from the top of the key to send the Huskies right ahead.

From there, UConn held on the rest of the way — despite missing seven straight free throws at one point — to clinch the seven-point victory and return to the Final Four.

“I did my best,” Watkins said of guarding Bueckers. Via Luca Evans of the OC Register. “I think, like I said before, any time she has a little mental lapse, she takes advantage of it.”

Watkins finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds for USC. Forbes added 24 points on five three-pointers. The duo combined for 53 of USC's 73 points. Center Raya Marshall finished the game with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

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Bueckers led UConn with 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the Huskies' win. It was her seventh straight game with at least 20 points as well. Edwards added 24 points and six rebounds while shooting 7 of 13 from the field.

UConn and Iowa will now face off in Game 2 on Friday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, following South Carolina's game against NC State.