BRIDGEPORT, CONN. – She couldn’t miss. Like almost literally.
Each time the ball left her fingertips, swish. One after another. All clutch shots, all necessary, all carrying the weight of a storied program’s expectations.
This has been a tough season for Paige Bueckers, physically and emotionally. But the basketball wizard from Hopkins returned Monday night.
Bueckers went into a phone booth and Paige “Buckets” reappeared. Her legend grew exponentially with a shooting exhibition that will be revisited for many years.
“I would have loved to watch that game. Being in it was obviously crazy. ”
Bueckers made eight consecutive shots after halftime, scored 10 points in overtime and five more in the second overtime as UConn outlasted North Carolina State in a 91-87 regional final thriller that featured more clutch shots than will be possible to remember.
The outcome, in the opinion of UConn senior guard Christyn Williams, came down to one deciding factor:
“I was thinking, we have Paige Bueckers and they don’t,” she said.
Sometimes, it’s that simple.
The victory propelled UConn to its 14th consecutive Final Four this weekend in Minneapolis, allowing Bueckers to experience a grand homecoming. She put the entire UConn team on her back to make sure that happened.
Bueckers downplayed the personal significance of playing on her sport’s biggest stage in her hometown before admitting that “being home is nice, too. I’m not going to lie.”
She refused to be denied this opportunity, finishing with a game-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting. She didn’t miss after halftime until a jumper rolled out in the second OT.
When the outcome was finally secure and the Huskies could exhale, Bueckers screamed and thrust her arms into the arm and skipped down the court. She hugged teammates and danced and soaked in the moment and what is to come next.
Knee surgery sidelined Bueckers for 19 games and left her rusty when she returned. Coach Geno Auriemma tried to manage expectations as his star eased back after a two-month layoff, nobody sure if she would be able to capture the form that made her National Player of the Year as a freshman.
That Paige Bueckers was on display again in the most critical moment of their season.
“I had no expectation of when this would come, this kind of moment that she had,” Auriemma said. “Paige is different. She was made for these moments.”
Bueckers and her team had to work overtime to keep alive the program’s Final Four streak. The teams traded big shot after big shot, neither team wanting their season to end.
“That’s one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of since I’ve been at UConn, regular season or postseason,” Auriemma said.
Added Bueckers: “I would have loved to watch that game. Being in it was obviously crazy.”
Every time the Huskies looked like they might have things in hand, the Wolfpack had an answer.
NC State’s Jakia Brown-Turner drained a rainbow three-pointer from the deep corner with one second left in overtime to tie the score 77-77 and force a second extra session. That came after Bueckers had made two free throws with 6 seconds left.
NC State, which was trying to advance to its first Final Four since 1998, will look back at the end of regulation with regret.
With the scored tied 61-61, UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa missed two free throws with 28 seconds left.
NC State squandered its final possession. The Wolfpack waited too long to initiate its offense and settled for a rushed three-pointer by Kai Crutchfield that didn’t come close.
Bueckers caught fire in the overtime sessions – and that was it.
“Once she makes one, the rim is like this big,” Williams said, extending both of her arms to make a big circle. “She’s going to keep making them, so give her the ball.”
Teammates gave her the ball and she delivered in the clutch. So calm, so cool.
“I was thinking, we have Paige Bueckers and they do not.”
Bueckers didn’t get a fairy-tale sendoff in high school. The pandemic canceled both the state championship game and her dream of putting a celebratory bow on her illustrious prep career.
Who knows, maybe she will get that fairy-tale finish after all.
After what took place Monday night, anything seems possible.