BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — There was no good answer for the NCAA when it came to seeding Connecticut for March Madness.
The Huskies lost five games this year, their most heading into tournament time since 2005. But UConn also wasn’t fully itself all season, having gone without Paige Bueckers for three months as the sophomore star recovered from knee surgery.
Bueckers returned in February, but only played 45 minutes over the course of three games in the Big East tournament. The Huskies won those three games by a combined 96 points to glide to their eighth straight conference title. So, they were clearly still an elite team, it was just a question of how much they could rely on Bueckers in their quest to reach a 14th straight Final Four — which the Huskies did on Monday night with a 91-87 victory over N.C. State in double overtime.
It was a game worthy of a national championship, two excellent teams playing their best ball, trading big shots and big stops for 50 pulsating minutes. And it was in that atmosphere that one of the best players in the sport found her stride and had a defining game.
“I would have loved to have watched that game,” Buckers said. “I think being in it was obviously crazy. … I know that there’s going to be ups and downs through the process. There’s going to be highs and lows. It’s not always going to be easy. There’s going to be hard times. But just staying confident and trusting myself that I’m going to get it back, and also just my teammates and my coaches instilling that confidence in me that they trust me in these moments, they trust me with the ball, and they trust me to do the right thing. I just wanted to continue to play, and Coach is always huge on me about just making sure to just find a way to win. I think that was the key tonight.”
UConn’s resume didn’t warrant a No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament, but the committee’s mandate is to consider what a team will be in March Madness with the roster it has. Only, with Bueckers having barely played, there was no way to know. So, the NCAA selection committee kind of threw up its hands and made Connecticut the No. 2 seed in the Bridgeport Regional, effectively treating the Huskies like a top seed without the official designation.
The atmosphere for Monday night’s regional final, pitting No. 2 UConn against No. 1 N.C. State, was rollicking enough that you couldn’t just dismiss the Huskies’ home-state advantage. At the same time, the Wolfpack weren’t at all fazed by it, and that showed when Jakia Brown-Turner drilled a corner three with 0.8 seconds left in overtime to force a second session of extra basketball.
“I just tuned the crowd out and just played hard for my team,” said Brown-Turner, who led N.C. State with 20 points. “I did everything I could to get stops, rebounds, and score, just anything to help the team. I really didn’t hear the crowd. Like, when I’m on the court, I get zoned out.”
It wasn’t home court that was the difference in lifting UConn to yet another Final Four and extended N.C. State’s wait to return for another year since the Wolfpack’s lone trip in 1998. It was Bueckers.
“We were trying to do some different things, but obviously I didn’t do a good enough job getting us in a position to maybe slow her down,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “She had a great performance.”
Bueckers hadn’t scored more than 16 points in a game since her return, and didn’t start logging more than 20 minutes per game until the tournament started. She had been good, but not great, scoring 15 points on 7-of-17 shooting in the regional semifinal against Indiana on Saturday. And if she had been anything less than her full star self on Monday, it would be the Wolfpack heading to Minneapolis right now instead of the Huskies on their way to a date with Stanford.
Bueckers scored 15 of UConn’s 26 points in the two overtimes, including a three-pointer to open the second OT, after Brown-Turner had beaten her defensive effort to make the game-tying triple. It can be hard for a Connecticut player to have a signature moment, because the Huskies are regularly so dominant. This was the game — at least for now — that Bueckers can hang her hat on.
“Literally I was thinking, we have Paige Bueckers and they don’t,” said Huskies guard Christyn Williams, a star in her own right and UConn’s second-leading scorer on Monday with 21 points. “I mean, like, once she makes one, the rim is like this big. She’s just going to keep making them. So just keep giving her the ball.”
There’s a critical difference between that, and what happened with UConn last year, when the Huskies were overly reliant on Bueckers as a freshman, and for as much as she could carry them, it wound up being too much to ask. While playing without her for so much of this season was a tremendous challenge for UConn, it also meant greater responsibility for Williams and Azzi Fudd, among others, to raise their games and make sure UConn was still UConn.
Fudd, like Williams, had her own huge performance on Monday, scoring 19 points with five rebounds, breaking down the Wolfpack defense with some excellent dribble drives, and making her own impact at UConn’s defensive end. The Huskies don’t beat N.C. State without Bueckers, who, as Geno Auriemma said, “was made for these moments,” but UConn also doesn’t go to another Final Four without a full team capable of getting to those moments — something that it definitely took to hang in with an N.C. State team that deserved its No. 1 seed, and can gripe with the committee over being sent to Bridgeport instead of Wichita, where fourth overall seed Louisville advanced past Michigan in the regional final. If UConn was the best of the No. 2 seeds, and getting a home regional final, it should’ve been against the Cardinals instead of the ACC champion Wolfpack… but also, Louisville beat UConn, 69-64, during the regular season, and the NCAA does generally try to avoid regular-season rematches in the tournament for as long as it can.
But the committee also had to be thinking that maybe this wasn’t UConn’s year. The Huskies hadn’t had a dominant season, hadn’t come out of a particularly strong Big East this year, and hadn’t shown any evidence that their top player was back at the top of her game. That evidence came on Monday, at the best time for UConn and the worst for N.C. State.
“She is still human,” Auriemma said. “And she did still miss two months of basketball. And not just the games, she missed two months of practice.”
This weekend marked a month since Buckers’ return to the lineup. It’s safe to say she’s back, and that means that the only team in the Final Four that isn’t a No. 1 seed… is the team that’s there for the 14th straight year. And the Huskies will go to Minneapolis knowing that their best player is, once again, their best player.
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