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UConn Star Paige Bueckers Is Inching Closer to the Program’s Mount Rushmore

SportUConn Star Paige Bueckers Is Inching Closer to the Program’s Mount Rushmore

PORTLAND, Ore. — The small group of young girls standing on the front row of Moda Center across the court from the biggest star in the gym must have called out Paige Bueckers’ name 100 times.

They kept on — “PAIGE, PAIGE, PAIGE, PAIGE ” — until UConn guard KK Arnold noticed them.

“You should go take a picture with them,” Arnold told her teammate. Bueckers shyly headed that way, as fans clamored for autographs and beamed with excitement as she delivered.

Bueckers is unlike any of Geno Auriemma’s superstars in the past, he said earlier this week. On the one hand, the public can’t get enough of her — as was the case again Monday night, when she put on a clinic against USC in the Elite Eight with 28 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists to propel UConn to the Final Four for the 23rd time in program history and third time in four years.

On the other hand, she can be hard to gauge — internalizing her emotions so much that Auriemma sometimes cannot read her. He has seen her break down exactly once — at Tennessee in the locker room last year when an ACL injury prevented her from playing.

“She doesn’t show it,” Auriemma said. “Other players that I’ve had that were of that level, they walked around like they owned it. They talked like they owned it. … Paige keeps it all inside and lets it come out when it needs to come out.”

In her own way, Bueckers let those emotions out Monday night.

As the seconds ticked off the clock and Bueckers came down with the final rebound in an epic showdown featuring the No. 3 seed Huskies against top-seeded USC, she dropped the ball and sprinted toward halfcourt to jump in celebration with teammates. She loosely placed a Final Four hat atop her head, posed for selfies and waved with both hands to the UConn crowd as she eventually skipped toward the tunnel.

There were times last year, sidelined with injury, when Bueckers forced herself to find joy outside of basketball. Not anymore.

“(The win) was one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt in my life,” she said.

Now Bueckers is just two wins away from solidifying herself as one of UConn’s all-time greats. Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore — each won at least two national titles. It’s Bueckers’ turn now, and perhaps the task in front of her is even more daunting, considering she’s trying to carry the Huskies to their first national championship since 2016 — a dry spell that is considered an eon in Storrs, Conn.

“We’ve had some great (UConn players) on that Mount Rushmore,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know that we could fit ‘em all. But yeah — all she needs is to win a national championship. Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to do that next weekend.”

She’ll share the marquee with Caitlin Clark in Cleveland for yet another highly anticipated women’s college basketball showdown.

In Monday’s star-studded Elite Eight meeting against USC and freshman sensation JuJu Watkins, Bueckers did it all for UConn to steal the show. She shot 11 of 23, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc for her 28 points, just one shy of Watkins. By halftime, Bueckers had 15 points to Watkins’ 13 as the superstars took turns trading clutch buckets.

Perhaps Bueckers’ most impressive sequence came in the third quarter with about four minutes to play, when she first hit a seemingly impossible turnaround jumper with a defender draped all over her, then splashed a 3-pointer on the next trip down the court to give UConn a 6-point lead and a momentum swing.


UConn has been famously short-handed this season because of injuries, and Bueckers has played all 40 minutes in each of the Huskies’ last three games.



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In addition to the offensive fireworks, when UConn guard Nika Mühl picked up her fourth foul with 3:05 remaining in the third quarter, Bueckers took on the most daunting defensive task of the night, too, by guarding Watkins.

Auriemma described Watkins as the toughest defensive assignment any of his guards had drawn this season and possibly at any point in their UConn careers. But although Watkins had her moments against Bueckers, hitting a couple of 3s over her, Bueckers seemed to have an answer of her own to stamp out USC’s momentum.

“Paige always wants to be superhuman. You can’t aspire to be that, but she tries her damndest to be superhuman,” Auriemma said. “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 everyone around them.”

In other words: “Paige doing Paige things.”

UConn has a cross-country flight back to Storrs, Conn. for a few days before the Huskies head to the Final Four.

It will be must-see TV and Bueckers will again have the weight of a national championship berth on her shoulders. But she will be prepared.

“For Paige, (the mindset is), ‘This is what I live for. I live for these moments,” Auriemma said. “Every kid has this … fear of, ‘What if I can’t?’ Anybody that tells you there’s not (that fear), they’re lying. But the great ones, they put that in the back of their mind and they just go and they do what they do.”

(Photo of Paige Bueckers: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)


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