BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — She couldn’t miss, almost literally.
Each time the ball came out of his fingertips, a rustle, one after another, all clutch shots, all necessary, all bearing the weight of the expectations of a staged program.
It’s been a tough season for Paige Bueckers, physically and emotionally, but the Hopkins basketball magician returned Monday night.
Bueckers walked into a phone booth and Paige “Buckets” reappeared, her legend growing exponentially with a shooting exhibit that will be revisited for many years to come.
Bueckers made eight straight shots after halftime, scored 10 points in overtime and five more in second overtime as UConn outlasted North Carolina State in a 91-87 regional final thriller that featured over clutch shots that it will not be possible to remember.
The result, in the opinion of UConn senior guard Christyn Williams, came down to one deciding factor:
“I thought, we have Paige Bueckers and they don’t,” she said.
Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
The win propelled UConn to its 14th straight Final Four this weekend in Minneapolis, giving Bueckers a big homecoming. She had the entire UConn team on her toes to make sure that happened.
Bueckers downplayed the personal importance of playing on his sport’s biggest stage in his hometown before admitting that “being home is good too. I’m not going to lie.”
She refused to be denied that opportunity, finishing with a game-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting. She didn’t miss after halftime until a jumper unfolded in the second OT.
When the result was finally certain and the Huskies could expire, Bueckers screamed and dug his arms into the arm and jumped onto the field. She hugged her teammates and danced and soaked up the moment and what’s to come.
Knee surgery sidelined Bueckers for 19 games and left her rusty on her return Coach Geno Auriemma tried to manage expectations as his star retreated after a two-month layoff, no one knows if she would be able to capture the form that made her a freshman national player of the year.
That Paige Bueckers was on display again at the most critical moment of their season.
“I didn’t expect this to happen, this kind of moment she had,” Auriemma said. “Paige is different. She was made for those moments.”
Bueckers and his team had to work overtime to keep the program’s Final Four streak alive. Teams traded blow after blow, with neither team wanting their season to end.
“It’s one of the best games I’ve been in since I’ve been at UConn, regular season or playoffs,” Auriemma said.
Bueckers added: “I would have loved to watch that game. Being in it was obviously crazy.”
Whenever the Huskies seemed to 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 a second left in overtime to tie the score 77-77 and force a second overtime after Bueckers made two free throws with 6 seconds to play.
NC State, which was trying to qualify for its first Final Four since 1998, will return with regret to the end of the settlement.
With the score tied 61-61, UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa missed two free throws with 28 seconds left.
NC State squandered their final possession. The Wolfpack waited too long to launch their attack and settled for a rushing three-pointer from Kai Crutchfield that didn’t get close.
Bueckers caught fire in overtime – and that was it.
“Once she does one, the rim is like that,” Williams said, reaching out with both arms to make a big circle. “She’s going to keep doing it, so give her the ball.”
BOXSCORE: Connecticut 91, NC State 87 (2OT)
Her teammates gave her the ball and she delivered into the clutch. So calm, so cool.
Bueckers didn’t get a high school fairytale sendoff. The pandemic canceled both the state championship game and his dream of putting a celebratory bow to his illustrious prep career.
Who knows, maybe she’ll get that fairy tale finish after all.
After what happened Monday night, anything seems possible.