Paige Bueckers scored 24 points to lead third-seeded UConn and its injury-depleted roster back to the Elite Eight of the Women’s NCAA Tournament with a 53-45 victory over No. 7 seed Duke on Saturday night.

A year after having to watch March Madness while sidelined by a knee injury, Bueckers was again the best player on the floor, 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 had 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.

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 into 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.

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.

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

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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