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All eyes will be on JuJu Watkins and Paige Bueckers as USC and UConn clash in the Elite Eight

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — In any different year, the focus ahead of Southern California and UConn clashing with a Final Four berth at stake might be on the programs, not individual players.

A school in a regional final of the women’s NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years versus the established powerhouse of the sport getting to a familiar place despite being beset by injuries.

But not this year. Not with fabulous freshman JuJu Watkins on one side and the dogged determination of Paige Bueckers on the other.

“I think we would all tell you, right, it’s USC against UConn, and it’s LSU against Iowa. But star power drives narratives in athletics. It’s why the NBA took off, you know, when there were faces to it, going all the way back to Magic and Larry and Michael Jordan,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “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.”

The star power will be plentiful on Monday night when the top-seeded Trojans face No. 3 seed UConn in the Portland 3 Region final, the second game of a dynamic twinbill that begins with Caitlin Clark and Iowa facing Angel Reese and defending champion LSU in Albany, New York.

For USC (29-5), it’s the first regional final appearance since 1994 when Cheryl Miller was coaching at her alma mater. The Trojans haven’t reached the Final Four since 1986.

For UConn (32-5), it’s the 28th time in the Elite Eight and the chance at a 23rd Final Four trip in a year where the Huskies have made it this far with an injury-depleted roster.

That’s the broader picture of what’s at stake. But plenty of eyes will be tuning in just to watch what Watkins and Bueckers can do, even if they’re not always matched up against one another.

“This seems like a throwback time to USC, you know? And it’s ironic that this is the first time that we’re meeting in the (tournament), but it goes to show you how long they’ve been away from the limelight,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “One player, one coach can make a difference. Here they are, and here we are. I wish we could both win, but we can’t.”

That one player for USC is Watkins. Bueckers said she’s been impressed by the entire freshman class this season, but specially with the 18-year-old Watkins, who’s shown confidence and poise in her first year while doing a little bit of everything for the Trojans. In USC’s Sweet 16 win over Baylor, Watkins reached the 30-point mark for the 14th time this season.

Watkins said one of the things that stands out about Bueckers is her pace. She plays hard, she plays relentlessly. But it’s controlled.

“That’s the key part to being a great basketball player is surveying the court and stuff like that. It’s definitely something I’m continuing to work on, but I would say she’s got it,” Watkins said. “Not necessarily how quick, but the way she’s able to slow the game down and make the right plays.”

Last season, Bueckers was sidelined while recovering from a major knee injury when the Huskies were bounced in the Sweet 16, snapping UConn’s streak of 14 consecutive Final Fours. This season, Bueckers has been on a mission to get UConn back to that stage. It’s a quiet determination that sometimes Auriemma has trouble getting a read on.

“Paige is a different star than maybe any that I’ve ever coached. She doesn’t show it. She doesn’t carry it around with her. She doesn’t talk about it. Other players that I’ve had that were of that level, they walked around like they owned it. They talked like they owned it. They played like they owned it,” Auriemma said. “I think Paige keeps it all inside and lets it come out when it needs to come out, but I know that winning a national championship is really probably the biggest reason why she went to college and played at UConn in the first place, that she wanted an opportunity to do that.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

By TIM BOOTH
AP Sports Writer

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