Bueckers shines in double overtime as UConn heads to 14th straight Final Four
Paige Bueckers played 18 of 20 minutes for the University of Connecticut women's basketball team in the first half of Monday night’s regional final of the NCAA Tournament in Bridgeport. She had only four points.
But in propelling the Huskies through the second half and two overtimes, the sophomore guard ended the night with 27 points.
“[It was] my teammates and my coaches just instilling that confidence in me that they trust me in these moments and they trust me with the ball and they trust me to [do] the right thing,” Bueckers said after a 91-87 victory over North Carolina State University. “I just wanted to continue to play.”
Bueckers and the Huskies survived a stiff challenge from NC State, the top seed in their region, to advance to the Final Four.
It’s the 14th straight Final Four that the Huskies will play in — an NCAA Division I record. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after the game that the Final Four streak could have ended at any time, had it not been for Bueckers putting the “finishing touches” on Monday night’s victory.
“But kids like Paige won’t let it end, and there has to be that kind of kid,” Auriemma said. “All of the coaches that are going [this week] to Minneapolis, they all have really, really good players or we wouldn’t be there.”
The 11-time national champion coach let out a sigh when he opened a news conference with the media and proceeded to say that it was one of the best games he’d ever coached.
“It was the kind of basketball game that makes you appreciate how great this game can be, and it was a great showcase for our sport,” Auriemma said. “I don’t think there can be better advertising for what women’s basketball can be than what you saw tonight.”
The Huskies weren’t the top seed in their region despite it being decided in Connecticut. NC State was, but it had to play what was essentially a road game in front a sold-out crowd predominantly clad in UConn blue at Total Mortgage Arena.
“I couldn’t be prouder of [NC State] not letting the crowd or the name on the front of those jerseys faze them,” said Wolfpack coach Wes Moore about his team’s effort in the loss. “They just came to play.”
Two free throws from Bueckers put UConn up 77-74 toward the end of the first overtime. But Jakia Brown-Turner, NC State’s leading scorer on the night, nailed a 3-point shot with less than a second left.
“I really didn’t hear the crowd,” Brown-Turner said after she put up 20 points for the Wolfpack. “When I’m on the court I get zoned out.”
But Bueckers responded by hitting a 3-pointer of her own to start the second overtime. Teammate Christyn Williams was asked about that after the game. “Literally, I was thinking, ‘We have Paige Bueckers and they don’t.’ Once she makes one, the rim is like this big,” Williams said forming a big circle with her arms.
Bueckers had 15 points in the two overtime periods. It was Williams who scored UConn’s last five points of the night, including the basket that put the game out of reach with five seconds to go. Williams, who tallied 21 points, said past season-ending losses motivated her to make that last bucket.
“I’ve unfortunately had it twice: my freshman year, last year,” Williams said. “That’s just a feeling that I don’t want to experience again.”
In Williams’ senior year, UConn goes to the Final Four and has a date with Stanford University Friday night in Minneapolis. It marks Bueckers' return to her home state of Minnesota.
“It’s obviously extra motivation just to go back home and have the Final Four there and be a part of that experience,” Bueckers said. “But honestly, whatever the location — what gym, what court — I’m just excited to be out there with my sisters and playing another game.”
The reigning AP Women’s College Player of the Year says she’s taking it one game at a time. On Monday night, in a game when her team needed her the most, she played 45 minutes — the most since her return from a fractured leg that cost her 19 games.