The UConn’s women’s basketball team extended its streak of consecutive Final Four appearances to 14 Monday night, as the No. 2 seed Huskies defeated No. 1 seed NC State 91-87 in a double-overtime instant classic in the Bridgeport Regional final.
It was the first double-overtime game in the Elite Eight or later in the history of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The game featured nine ties and 13 lead changes.
“It’s one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of since I’ve been at UConn,” said coach Geno Auriemma, who has guided the Huskies to 22 Final Fours overall. “It was just amazing the way the 10 kids that are on the court are playing for their lives. Nobody wants to lose, and everybody is making big play after big play, and nobody backed down from the moment. It’s a shame one of us had to lose, right? It would be great if both of us could go.”
The Huskies will face No. 1 seed Stanford at 9:30 p.m. ET on Friday at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
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UConn’s Paige Bueckers, who missed 19 games earlier this season because of a knee injury, looked like her reigning national player of the year self with 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field. After scoring just four points in the first half, she took over offensively after the break, making her next eight shots from the field across the third and fourth quarters and both overtimes (shooting 8-for-9), as well as going a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line.
“Literally I was thinking, ‘We have Paige Bueckers and they don’t,'” senior guard Christyn Williams said. “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.”
“Paige is different,” Auriemma added. “Those players, if they were commonplace, we would know exactly who they are and we’d be able to rattle them off, but they’re not. They’re few and far in between, and she was made for these moments.”
Days after Auriemma and Bueckers herself were describing the ways in which the sophomore guard still wasn’t 100%, she shook off any remnants of that to come through with arguably the best game of her career.
“I can’t dream a lot of the stuff that happens to me, which is why I thank God so much because it’s just with huge faith, the things I’ve done in my life,” Bueckers said. “I’m just super happy to be here.”
Bueckers is from Hopkins, Minnesota, which is about 10 miles from the site of the Final Four.
“Two days ago I said, ‘Win or go home,’ but we won and I’m still going home,” she said. “This is crazy. I’m just so excited no matter the location, no matter where it is.”
Last season, Bueckers might not have consistently had help around her in the NCAA tournament, but that wasn’t the case Monday. Williams finished with 21 points, while freshman Azzi Fudd added 19. NC State was led by junior Jakia Brown-Turner (20 points), senior Elissa Cunane (18) and junior Jada Boyd (14).
The Wolfpack fell short of appearing in the program’s first Final Four since 1998. They end their season 32-4 but with their first Elite Eight berth since that same year.
“This journey has been incredible, and this team has done so much and accomplished so much,” said Cunane, who is expected to get drafted into the WNBA next month. “Although this is hurtful right now, I am proud of all that we’ve done this season, and even to be playing in this game. I couldn’t be more proud of the team.”
The Huskies led for the majority of regulation and by as many as 10 in the second quarter before the Wolfpack rallied in the second half. NC State retook the lead for the first time since Kayla Jones scored the first points of the game off a Boyd layup early in the fourth, and shortly after pulled ahead by as many as four.
To conclude a back-and-forth final frame in regulation, UConn senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa missed both of what would have been the go-ahead free throws with 28 seconds remaining and the score tied. NC State guard Kai Crutchfield’s potential winning 3 then fell short at the buzzer.
Later on, following a pair of Bueckers free throws, the Huskies led by three with 6.2 seconds to go in the first overtime, but Brown-Turner’s corner 3 with less than a second remaining forced another five minutes of play.
“This team has absolutely no quit in us,” Cunane said. “I think you can see that even if we start off a game bad, not hitting shots or something, we’re not going to give up. I don’t think for a second on that court we gave up or stopped fighting.”
UConn then outscored NC State 14-10 in the second overtime, with Williams scoring the Huskies’ final five points, including the win-sealing layup that punched their ticket to Minneapolis.
UConn suffered an early scare when graduate forward Dorka Juhasz went down in the second quarter with a fractured/dislocated wrist that left the Huskies visibly shaken up.
“Coach got us together and basically just told us the biggest thing we could do for her was win the game and win it for her,” Williams said. “I guess that was just our mentality for the rest of the game.”
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