Portland, Oregon — TV execs had long fantasised about this star-studded clash. Senior great Paige Bueckers of Connecticut takes on rookie sensation JuJu Watkins of USC. During Monday’s Elite Eight match, the stars will undoubtedly contribute to shattering any previous records for women’s basketball TV viewership. Who gets to the Final Four will be determined by a different matchup, though.
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma stated, “It’s not Paige vs. JuJu; it’s USC vs. UConn.”

In what might be a switch in the women’s basketball landscape, Watkins’ top-seeded Trojans take on No. 3 Connecticut in the Portland 3 Regional final on Monday at Moda Centre at 6 p.m. PDT (ESPN). The Huskies have won 11 national titles since their last Elite Eight appearance in 1994, solidifying their position as the undisputed force that attracted nearly every elite recruit.

In Storrs, Connecticut, the stars are simply not aligning as they once were. Four of the biggest names in sports, representing separate teams, will compete in Monday’s Elite Eight games. In the Albany 2 Regional final, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark takes on Louisiana State’s Angel Reese. This is a rematch of the national championship game from the previous year, which attracted close to 10 million spectators. The victor moves on to face either Buecker’s Huskies or Watkins’ Trojans in Friday’s Final Four in Cleveland.

USC player Taylor Bigby stated, “Seeing this matchup come to life tomorrow, I know it’s going to bring a lot more people, more views, just more attention to women’s basketball.” Everyone’s dream as a child was to attend UConn. It’s absurd to consider that, even while we are in a situation where people are likely staring at us and saying, “Oh, I want to go to SC one day.”

Due to Watkins’ smooth transition to the collegiate game, the Trojans (29-5) are back in the national spotlight for the first time in decades. With 891 points, USC’s first All-American since Tina Thompson in 1997 is second in NCAA Division 1 history in freshman scoring. She is behind Tina Hutchinson of San Diego State (898 in 1984) by a margin of seven points.

Bueckers has firsthand experience as a standout freshman. She won the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year, and USBWA Player of the Year in 2021, making history as the first freshman to receive a national player of the year honour.

Sitting courtside at a high school all-star game in New York last summer, Watkins and Bueckers first spoke at a Nike event. When Watkins got ready to head off to college, they talked about life and basketball. The 18-year-old wanted to “make an impact right away,” and Bueckers understood that.

According to Bueckers, “it’s pretty amazing her confidence, her fearlessness, and her ability to just not care that she’s a freshman and just perform the way that she does at the level that she does.”

Following two seasons marred by injuries, Bueckers is back to her best form. During the postseason, she is averaging 27.8 points on 52% shooting from the field, 8.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. The 6-foot guard leads the Huskies (32-5) in thefts (19) and blocked shots (16) in Big East and NCAA tournament play. He missed the entire previous season due to a damaged anterior cruciate ligament.

USC guard Kayla Padilla stated, “Obviously Paige is their JuJu basically, but as we know from our team, they have weapons all around.” “We just need to make sure we’re giving every player on the floor our full attention because we know they’re a formidable team.”

With five anticipated players out due to season-ending injuries, the Huskies are getting by with a small bench. Despite having a broken nose during the Big East tournament, Aaliyah Edwards, the second-leading scorer, is averaging 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in the NCAA tournament. In UConn’s regional semifinal game against Duke, which the Huskies lost 53-45 despite blowing a 20-point lead in the third quarter, redshirt freshman Ice Brady was the only player to come off the bench.

The Huskies have only played four games with fewer than ten players this season, the win being one of them. The Trojans are experts at near misses. With its victory over Baylor in the Sweet 16 (74–70), USC has won 12 games this season by a single digit margin.

The first-ever NCAA tournament meeting between USC and UConn will take place on Monday. Auriemma, who started his coaching career in 1978 as an assistant coach at St. Joseph’s, remembered how the Trojans in the 1980s “exploded onto the scene” with the addition of Paula and Pam McGee and Cheryl Miller. The eight-time Naismith coach of the year remarked that the teams’ lack of postseason experience “goes to show you how long [USC has] been away from the limelight.”

Despite the fact that USC hasn’t been to the Final Four since Miller’s senior year in 1986, Auriemma noted that the squad led by Watkins and coach Lindsay Gottlieb “seems like a throwback” to previous Trojan teams.

“You know, sometimes when you go away and are not seen again, you never come back?” he asked. “One coach, one player, may change things. We are here, and they are here. I hope we both come out on top.

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