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Paige Bueckers leads UConn women into 28th Elite Eight as Huskies hold off Duke 53-45

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — UConn is testing how much depth is needed to make a run in the women’s NCAA Tournament.

Having a healthy Paige Buckers certainly helps.

Bueckers scored 24 points to lead third-seeded UConn and its injury-depleted roster with a 53-45 victory over No. 7 seed Duke on Saturday night.

“The game was very physical on both ends of the floor. The pace was fast, both sides, trying to push it. So you feel it, but at this point of the season, you’ve got to be mentally tougher,” Bueckers said. “Everybody’s got aches and boo-boos during this time, and it’s just about who powers through it better, who’s mentally tougher.”

A year after having to watch March Madness while sidelined by a knee injury, , lifting the Huskies into their 28th regional final. And this one will be among the more unlikely in coach Geno Auriemma’s 39-year tenure.

UConn dressed eight players and played only six. But it still has Bueckers, the 2021 national player of the year who has returned to that form after injuries limited or sidelined her for most of the past two seasons.

The Huskies’ victory set up the matchup fans had anticipated since the brackets were released — top seed Southern California against the Huskies on Monday night with Bueckers squaring off against fabulous freshman JuJu Watkins. The 18-year-old Watkins scored 30 points in USC’s 74-70 win over Baylor in the other Portland 3 Region semifinal.

Aaliyah Edwards and KK Arnold each scored 12 points for the Huskies, who scored their second-fewest points in a March Madness victory.

“Scoring was not going to be easy tonight at both ends. They weren’t going to have an easy time scoring against us, and we weren’t going to have an easy time scoring against them,” Auriemma said.

Oluchi Okananwa led Duke (22-12) with 15 points and Reigan Richardson added 10, but after ousting No. 2 seed Ohio State in the second round, the Blue Devils disappeared at the offensive end. They scored 13 first-half points and had 27 going to the fourth quarter before a flurry that put a scare into the Huskies.

Bueckers had a role in causing the offensive issues for Duke, but it was a collective effort that kept Richardson from getting hot like she did while scoring 28 points against Ohio State.

“UConn did a great job with disrupting us,” Richardson said. “We did have a lot of turnovers. It’s something that we’ve been trying to work on the whole season. At the end of the day, UConn executed their game plan very well.”

The Blue Devils had just 11 baskets through three quarters. Duke trailed by as many as 20 late in the third but made a massive run in the closing minutes. Okananwa’s three-point play with 4:46 left cut the deficit to 10. She added a 3-pointer with 1:59 left to get Duke within five, but the Blue Devils got no closer despite a couple of UConn turnovers and a handful of good looks for Duke around the basket.

Bueckers’ free throws with 19 seconds left put the final touch on a shaky victory for the Huskies.

“The fatigue factor became a big issue, because it forced us to change our game plan,” Auriemma said. “We got up 20 because we just pushed it, pushed it, pushed it. And then I felt like, OK, we need a breather here, or we’re not going to be able to finish the game. And I think by doing that, we got a little bit; kind of took a deep breath. We were exercising, and then we decided to have a cigarette, and then we didn’t feel like exercising anymore.”

Duke had 13 turnovers and hit 5 of 24 shots in the first half. Ashlon Jackson’s 3-pointer in the dying seconds of the second quarter assured Duke of avoiding a school record for fewest points in the opening 20 minutes. Its 13 points were tied for the third-fewest.

UP NEXT

UConn will be seeking its 23rd Final Four appearance and while the focus will be on Watkins and Bueckers, the Huskies will need to find more offense to keep up with USC.

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AP March Madness bracket: /hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: /hub/march-madness