As UConn women’s basketball celebrated its 14th straight trip to the Final Four after a thrilling double-overtime victory over top-seeded NC State on Monday night, Christyn Williams had a simple explanation for why the Huskies were moving on.
“We have Paige Bueckers and they don’t,” she said.
Bueckers was transcendent in a way that we haven’t seen before. She dropped a game-high 27 points — 23 of which came after halftime and 15 of which were in overtime. She missed just a single shot from the field in the final 30 minutes of the game and hit crucial baskets time and time again down the stretch.
“Paige is different,” Geno Auriemma said postgame. “She was made for these moments.”
But early on, it didn’t look like she was on the brink of arguably her greatest performance in a UConn uniform so far. Bueckers missed her first four jumpers — none of which came particularly close to going in.
The sophomore started to turn it around with back-to-back baskets after NC State drew within one early in the second half but went to the bench for nearly three minutes during a crucial stretch in the fourth quarter. Though she scored UConn’s last points of regulation with 2:10 to go, that was all she did in the period.
But when overtime began, Bueckers became unstoppable.
First, she made two free throws to put the Huskies ahead — a significant accomplishment considering the team had gone just 1-of-8 from the line to that point. NC State tied it back up on its next possession but Bueckers hit one of her patented pull-up mid-range jumpers to retake the lead. The Wolfpack responded with a go-ahead 3-pointer but again, Bueckers came down and knocked down a gotta-have-it shot to give UConn the advantage.
At that point, it began to feel like something special was brewing.
“Once she makes one, the rim is like this big,” Williams said, making a big circle with her arms. “She’s just going to keep making them, so just keep giving her the ball.”
Once again, NC State took the lead. And once again, Bueckers took it right back, this time from the free throw line, where she made both her attempts with 1:26 remaining. At that point, she had scored eight of UConn’s 10 points in overtime.
“She had no choice,” Auriemma said. “It was either do that every possession or we’re going to lose.”
With six ticks still on the clock, Bueckers went to the line again. The Huskies led by one and if she went 2-for-2, it meant they at least couldn’t lose on a last-second shot. Without blinking, Bueckers nailed both and gave UConn a 77-74 lead.
One more defensive stop and the Huskies would be in the Final Four.
On that possession, Bueckers marked Jakia Brown-Turner but got caught on a screen, which gave the NC State junior just enough separation to get a shot off from the corner. Brown-Turner buried it with .8 seconds left and sent the game into a second overtime.
For UConn, it was a worst-case scenario — at least, that’s how it felt. Azzi Fudd saw it differently, though.
“I think NC State hitting that big shot to put us into that second overtime on her was the best thing they could do but the worst thing they could do,” she said.
The play could’ve been a back-breaker for the Huskies. They thought they had the game won, only to then have to prepare for another overtime period. NC State celebrated like it won the game while UConn’s players went to the bench with a shell-shocked look on their faces.
But Bueckers wasn’t going to let her mistake end the Huskies’ season. On their first possession of double OT, she drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the arc that immediately put pressure on the Wolfpack’s offense. While Elissa Cunane scored to get the gap to one point, Bueckers hit another shot that sparked a quick 4-0 spurt, giving UConn the first two-possession lead of either overtime.
The Huskies never relinquished the advantage and rode it all the way to the 91-87 victory.
“(After the game-tying shot from NC State), Paige said, ‘That’s fine. This is one more thing,’” Auriemma relayed. “Now she decides, ‘I’m going to do what I do,’ and the rest of this is in the scorebook.”
Bueckers’ takeover in the second half — and especially overtime — would’ve been impressive enough on its own. But considering she’d rarely looked anywhere close to 100 percent since returning from knee surgery in late February, Bueckers’ performance was that much more special.
Prior to the Sweet 16, she hadn’t taken more than nine shots in her six games back. In that win over Indiana, Bueckers tied for the team-lead with 15 points but did so with a 7-of-17 shooting performance. The rust from missing two months was still evident.
Both Auriemma and Bueckers herself questioned whether she could get back to the level she played at all of last season and the start of this year. The coach even said there were times it wasn’t even clear whether or not she’d return at all.
Any and all doubts were silenced on Monday night.
“She is still human. She is still a kid and she still did miss two months of basketball — and not just the games, she missed two months of practice,” Auriemma said. “It was going to take time. Who knew? I had no expectation of when this would come — this kind of moment that she had.”
It came against NC State and now, Bueckers is returning home to Minnesota with UConn on to the Final Four.
After the Huskies relied too heavily on her in the early part of the season, they spent most of the year figuring out how to win without her — a task that continued even after she returned.
On Monday, that showed through. Christyn Williams had seven of UConn’s first nine points and its final five. Azzi Fudd came up with clutch baskets and free throws en route to 19 points. Aaliyah Edwards’ 10 points and six rebounds were seemingly all at crucial moments.
Bueckers didn’t single-handedly win the game. She just capped off one of the Huskies’ best all-around performances of the season with a legendary effort of her own — which is exactly how the coach drew it up.
“A lot of kids had a lot of opportunities this year to prove that they belong at UConn and they took advantage of it and they proved it,” Auriemma said. “All they needed was Paige to add the finishing touches.”
While the Huskies might be the only non-1-seed to reach the Final Four, it’s hard not to call them the favorites. Why?
Because they have Bueckers and the rest don’t.