‘Paige doing Paige things’ has UConn in Final Four

PORTLAND, Ore. — Back in the fall, UConn coach Geno Auriemma thought it would’ve been a “miracle” for his team to make a deep March run.

A slew of injuries hampered the Huskies for a third straight season. They hardly looked like a Final Four team when they lost three games in the first month and took more recent hits in nonconference play with losses to South Carolina and Notre Dame.

But they still had one player who could transcend all else — Paige Bueckers — and a cast of supporting characters who came through to put UConn back in the Final Four like it never left.

Behind Bueckers’ 28 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks, the third-seeded Huskies defeated 1-seed USC 80-73 in the Portland 3 regional final on Monday to secure the program’s 23rd Final Four appearance and 15th in the past 16 women’s NCAA tournaments. They will face the 1-seed Iowa Hawkeyes on Friday for a spot in the national title game.

The 11-time national champion Huskies aren’t used to being the underdogs; more often than not over the past three decades, they were considered a shoo-in to make the Final Four.

But with six players out for the season due to injuries, leaving them with a seven-player rotation, Auriemma said he would have understood if the Huskies simply ran out of gas on Monday.

“[Assistant coach] Jamelle [Elliott] just kept saying, ‘Let’s ride the wave and when it crashes, it crashes,'” Auriemma said. “Me, there’s no wave, there’s no nothing, it’s just hanging on for dear life … And yet, just when I thought, ‘All right, here it comes,’ they would do something that would just make you feel like maybe they got something left.”

UConn led for 25:52 in the regional final, going ahead by as many as 12 points in the third quarter. Though USC tied the game with 7:32 to play, the Huskies held firm, answering with a 17-5 run that largely kept the Trojans at bay. Bueckers roared back to score nine points in the final 5:06 and convert four of the last five field goals for the Huskies. Though USC cut the deficit to five twice in the final 20 seconds, UConn’s Nika Muhl and Aaliyah Edwards finished the game 4-for-4 from the free throw line to keep the Trojans from getting any closer.

Well after the game had ended, the confetti had fallen and the Moda Center had mostly cleared out, Auriemma was still chuckling to himself in disbelief.

“Honest to God, man. I can’t believe that this is actually happening,” he said.

Bueckers, the 2021 national player of the year and this regional’s most outstanding player, now sports the most 25-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist games in a single NCAA tournament over the past 25 years with three, breaking a tie with Candice Wiggins (2008). Playing in her first March Madness in 700-plus days after an ACL tear sidelined her all of last season, she has spearheaded the Huskies’ postseason run with 20-plus points in seven consecutive games, the longest streak of her career, and has reminded anyone who dared forget why she was considered a generational star prior to her injury.

“Today was one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt in my life,” Bueckers said. “Just seeing where I was a year ago, today, doing individual workouts, starting to feel the basketball again, get the ball in my hands again and play. Now, I’m here with my teammates and coaching staff and going to the Final Four.”

As Auriemma added, “When you have players that think like there’s nothing I can’t do, there’s nothing that escapes me, they’re just on another level. They play the game on another level. They think on a different level. They inspire everybody around them. So, yeah, today was Paige doing Paige things.”

A year after a stunning Sweet 16 exit to Ohio State with Bueckers on the bench — a loss that snapped the program’s streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances — Bueckers and fellow seniors Edwards and Muhl will appear in their third Final Four.

But this one, the seniors said, is different. And it looked that way as UConn — injured players, active players, staffers, managers, administrators and all — celebrated at center court after the final buzzer with a seemingly never-ending stream of tight embraces punctuated with tears, dances and screams.

“This has been probably the most rewarding one,” Muhl said. “I would say this group is very special. We overcame so much and learned from it.”

It wasn’t just Bueckers who showed up Monday, either. Edwards finished with 24 points and 6 rebounds. And Muhl had 8 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and a miraculous final 13 minutes in which she managed to not pick up her fifth and final foul.

All four UConn rookies — comprising over half of its rotation — made big plays on the biggest stage of their careers, from Ice Brady (8 points) and Ashlynn Shade (5 points, 6 rebounds) to KK Arnold (4 points, 5 rebounds) and Qadence Samuels (one big 3 and 14 minutes despite not appearing in the Huskies’ previous two games).

“[Auriemma] said everybody just needs to be solid and do what they’re best at,” Muhl said. “This is a game today where everybody literally did what they’re best at.”

“[Assistant coach] Jamelle [Elliott] just kept saying, ‘Let’s ride the wave and when it crashes, it crashes.’ Me, there’s no wave, there’s no nothing, it’s just hanging on for dear life … And yet, just when I thought, ‘All right, here it comes,’ they would do something that would just make you feel like maybe they got something left.”

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UConn coach Geno Auriemma

USC, whose 29 wins were its most in a season since 1985-86, concludes its deepest tournament run since 1994 but with an incredibly bright future with presumptive freshman of the year JuJu Watkins leading the way.

Watkins scored 29 points on Monday, making her the all-time leading freshman scorer in Division I history with 920 points. She didn’t really get going until the fourth quarter, when she scored 13 points alone and tried to lift USC to a comeback.

UConn’s guards dealt with foul trouble while trying to keep up with her (Arnold joined Muhl with four fouls) but made life difficult enough overall for Watkins to be held to just 9-for-25 on the night.

“She doesn’t play like a freshman at all,” Auriemma said of Watkins. “So, it was as difficult a matchup as we’ve had. But I think we made her work exceptionally hard to get the points that she got.”

The Huskies next face another generational talent in Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA draft.

But for now, Auriemma & Co. will keep riding the wave — and see where it takes them.

“They believe in themselves,” Auriemma said, “and they’re making me believe in them even more.”

This post was originally published on ESPN

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