March 31, 2024 

JuJu vs. Paige showdown will be about more than two stars

USC is more than - and has always been more than Watkins in the same way that UConn has been more this season than Paige Bueckers. But it’s hard to quibble with the excitement, interest and ratings that it builds.

Back on March 10, already in the way-back machine for all that has happened since, USC was facing Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament finale in Las Vegas.

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The Cardinal had been burned by Trojans’ freshman sensation JuJu Watkins in their only regular-season meeting, Watkins putting up 51 points in a headline-grabbing takedown of Stanford at Maples Pavilion.

Tara VanDerveer was not going to let that happen again this time, so she threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Watkins, making her the focus of a defense that USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said, “I’ve never seen before.” Two, three, four, five players on Watkins at different points. Watkins finished with a season-low nine points.

The end result, a USC win.

The moral of this story, of course, is that USC is more than – and has always been – just Watkins in the same way that UConn has been more this season than Paige Bueckers.

But the marquee’s gotta marquee and it’s hard to quibble with the excitement, interest and ratings that it builds.

Just don’t expect the two teams that will take the floor Monday night on the precipice of the Final Four to buy in. And especially not Watkins or Bueckers, these two players with so much in common — from the way they burst onto the national radar as freshmen, to the attention they garner everywhere they go, to the load they will carry for their teams heading into Monday night’s Elite Eight showdown.

“At the end of the day, these are teams that have made it to this level,” Watkins said Sunday. “We are aware that everybody in the room knows how powerful a team can be. I’m just a player on this team. I play my role and everybody has roles. And I will do that to the best of my ability, but this is a team.”

For USC, it is McKenzie Forbes averaging 19.0 points in three NCAA Tournament games. It is Kayla Padilla hitting seven of her 16 3-point attempts, Rayah Marshall’s 11-point, 16-rebound game on Saturday against Baylor, and Kaitlyn Davis’ screen-setting and defense on the interior.

And Gottlieb’s confidence that her team is prepared for a moment they’ve never experienced.

“Part of that is because we haven’t been here and we are cheating our own story and that it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of pressure on us,” Gottlieb said. “I think we’ve been able to combine a joy for the game, and gratitude that we are still playing with an urgency and toughness that you need to win in March.”

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No single person would relate to that urgency and toughness better than UConn’s Bueckers, whose gifts are inarguable, but whose legacy feels frustratingly unwritten because of injuries.

For all that UConn means as a standard-bearer in women’s basketball, their rise in stature over the last 30 years interestingly parallel to USC’s period of dormancy on the national stage, the Huskies have gone since 2016 without winning a national championship. A veritable eternity.

And an undeniable hole in Bueckers’ resume that separates her from the likes of Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Maya Moore.

It’s not something she talks a lot about. She is not one to wear her ambitions on her sleeve.

“Paige is a different star than maybe any that I’ve ever coached,” Auriemma said. “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. 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. It’s not something she talks about every day. It’s not something that she discusses with her teammates. I just think it’s there, and hopefully it shows in her game when we’re in crunch time.”

Bueckers won’t fill that resume gap alone either – she has departing seniors Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl by her side – but she might have a bigger load to carry than Watkins considering the Huskies’ depth issues.

“Everybody on this team is hungry,” Bueckers acknowledged. “I know the senior class especially. You come to UConn to win a national championship, so that’s the main objective and main goal of the entire four or five years, however long you’re here.”

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Still, the outsized impact of these two individual players on their teams is undeniable. Bueckers’ and Watkins’ respective mantles as national stars have been backed up by their consistent excellence.

Bueckers accounts for 27.4% of UConn’s scoring this season, nearly 30% of their made 3-pointers and 31.3% of their free throws, and she is their best defender.

Watkins accounts for 36% of USC’s scoring and nearly 50% of their free throws.

But USC’s size across the board might be the biggest challenge for a short-handed Connecticut team.

“Their guards are tall. Their posts are tall,” Bueckers said. “And they use their size well. So just rebounding as a team. Defending as a team. Trying to make sure we are keeping the posts in when we can and defending the guards when we can. We will try to use our smarts rather than what we lack in length and height.”

About six months before the season started, Bueckers and Watkins found themselves sitting next to one another at a Nike high school showcase tournament. Bueckers says that they talked about basketball, her injury rehab and life.

“We talked about her transitioning into college, being a freshman, what that was like for her,” Bueckers said. “Definitely from that conversation, you can tell she’s got a good head on her shoulders. She’s humble and hungry, and you could tell from that conversation that she wanted to make an impact right away.”

An impact that Bueckers will be working to blunt with her own in what is going to be a clash of titans on Monday evening in Portland. Not just because the marquee says so, but because it is so.

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Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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