Season ends for USC Trojans in Elite 8 loss to UConn

On3 imageby:Erik McKinney04/02/24

ErikTMcKinney

In a battle of superstars, fourth-year standout Paige Bueckers and the No. 3 seed UConn Huskies executed better down the stretch than first-year phenom JuJu Watkins and the No. 1 USC Trojans.

Bueckers finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks while shooting 47.8% from the floor and hitting three-of-six shots from 3-point range. And she rose the occasion when it mattered most.

With 4:36 remaining in the game, Watkins hit a layup to cut the UConn lead to 65-64. Bueckers responded with a jumper and a dagger three-pointer on the next two possessions to push UConn out to a six-point lead. USC couldn’t respond offensively as Aaliyah Edwards connected on a three-point play, Bueckers hit another jumper and UConn tacked on another free throw to complete an 11-0 run and effectively seal the win.

Watkins finished with a game-high 29 points but needed 25 shots to get there as the tournament’s better teams continued to force her into difficult looks. And this time, the supporting cast couldn’t deliver quite enough. McKenzie Forbes scored 24 points but took 22 shots. Kaitlyn Davis and Kayla Padilla combined to shoot 2-for-15 for six points.

Watkins did set the NCAA single-season scoring record for a freshman during the game, eclipsing the 898 points scored by San Diego State’s Tina Hutchinson in the 1984 season.

While it’s a difficult end to the season for the Trojans and Watkins was emotional immediately at the final buzzer and throughout the postgame press conference, there is no need for this team to feel disappointed in how the 2023-24 season finished.

“They have completely changed a narrative about a program,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said of this Trojan team. “That’s really powerful. The way a country is going to see USC women’s basketball is really different than it was four months ago. And that’s a powerful thing for the group here. I think their legacy is that they got us somewhere. And now it’s on all of us to say, ‘What’s next?'”

What’s next for the Trojans will include a motivated Watkins and the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. USC will lose three key players in Forbes, Padilla and Davis, all of whom came over as transfers from Ivy League schools this past season. But the Trojans will welcome California Gatorade Player of the Year Kennedy Smith, two-time Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year Avery Howell, and fellow five-star prospect Keyleigh Heckel as part of this incoming class. They’re joined by three four-star prospects and all six signees rank among the top 90 overall prospects in ESPN’s HoopGurlz rankings. And with the success the transfers had, as well as the chance to play with Watkins, it wouldn’t be surprising if USC is an alluring transfer destination this offseason.

“We’re super excited about the trajectory of the program,” Gottlieb said. “We’ve got to keep working because nobody is going to hand anything to us. In fact, there will be more of a target on our back. But we’re really excited about where we’re going from here.”

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