USC women end season with Elite Eight loss to UConn

USC's best season in three decades came to an end in the Elite Eight, as the Trojans were unable to overcome the sport's premier program in UConn.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After 29 victories, a Pac-12 title and their deepest NCAA Tournament run in three decades, the USC women’s basketball’s season has come to an end.

The Trojans, top-seeded in the West Region, fell 80-73 to No. 3 seed Connecticut in the Elite Eight. With a chance to get to their first Final Four since 1986, the Trojans were unable to overcome the Huskies, who advanced to their 23rd Final Four in the past 34 years and their 15th in the past 16 tournaments.

The loss put an end to the program’s best season in three decades. After winning the Pac-12 Conference Tournament and earning a No. 1 seed, the Trojans made their tournament run since 1994.

“I told the team in there, what we did this year was incredibly unique and something I won’t ever forget,” coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I do think it’s important. Like you guys are on the outside looking in, and all of a sudden USC explodes on the scene, and it’s not lost on me how hard that is.”

A big reason for the Trojans’ defeat was their inability to contain UConn star Paige Bueckers. The junior guard torched the Trojans with 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks.

Getting her team back to the Final Four was particularly emotional for Bueckers, who missed the 2022-2023 season with an ACL injury. Without her, the Huskies failed to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007.

It felt as though every time the Trojans made a run, Bueckers responded. This was spotlighted in the fourth quarter, when, after USC went on a 19-7 run to tie the game at 59, Bueckers scored nine points in the game’s final 5:05.

“I don’t know Paige personally, but to see that kid be out for two years and come back and do this, as much hurt as we’re in, they earned it, and I credit them,” said Gottlieb, who saw the Huskies outscore the Trojans 21-14 down the stretch. “They’re just such a class program.”

UConn senior guard Aaliyah Edwards added a massive game, finishing with 24 points and six rebounds.

Meanwhile, star freshman guard Juju Watkins once again led USC with 29 points and 10 rebounds, recording her second double-double of the tournament. Junior center Rayah Marshall also had a double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) and senior guard McKenzie Forbes added 24 points, three rebounds, and three assists.

Watkins’ performance also broke the NCAA single-season record for most points scored by a freshman (920). The mark previously belonged to Tina Hutchinson of San Diego State (898).

“It’s definitely an honor,” Watkins said of the record. “(It’s) not really the terms I would like to end on, on my season, I mean, I’m just blessed.

“This program has offered me a lot. I’m so grateful for it. It’s just been a great season.”

With Watkins just a freshman and the country’s top recruiting class coming in next year, the future of the USC program is brighter than it has been in a long time. But as the Trojans look to take the next step toward a national championship, they will lose several of their senior leaders, including Forbes.

“I would say all of our seniors, I know they get the most attention, they have made it an absolute joy to come to work every day,” Gottlieb said. To have such incredible people. I mean, they were selfless. They’re hoopers. They’re big-time players. They’re competitors.

“I think everyone in that locker room who had an opportunity to play with them will be better for it. I think that’s their lasting impact. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to coach them for this year. I know we’ll be connected forever after.”