BRIDGEPORT, Connecticut ( Associated Press) – In a double-overtime thriller that seriously jeopardized UConn’s record series of women’s Final Four appearances, Paige Bueckers made it through for the Huskies – earning a trip home to Minneapolis.
The sensational second-year student scored 15 of her 27 points after regulation, and UConn beat North Carolina State Monday night 91-87 to reach its 14th consecutive Final Four.
“Two days ago I said ‘Win or go home’, but we won and I’m still going home,” said Bueckers, who missed almost three months with a left knee injury this season. “This is crazy. I’m just so excited, no matter the location, no matter where it is.”
Bueckers, who grew up 10 miles outside of the Final Four spot, scored the first five points in the second overtime to lift the Huskies (29-5), who face defending champion Stanford in the national semifinals on Friday night.
Bueckers returned last month from knee surgery that set her aside for 19 games, and in eight appearances before this one, she was not quite the same. But against NC State, she looked like the player named Associated Press Player of the Year in 2021. She was named the Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament’s Bridgeport Region.
“Thank God, Paige came back because she gives everyone so much confidence and then everyone just played kind of play and everyone took turns,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It was just an amazing basketball game and it was a great showcase for our sport.”
Auriemma said it was one of the biggest matches of his Hall of Fame career at UConn. The Huskies were No. 5 in the final Associated Press Top 25 before the tournament; the Wolfpack was no. 3, and both talented rosters shone.
“It was just incredible. … Nobody wants to lose, ”Auriemma said. “Everyone made great play after great play. no one has recoiled from the moment. It’s a shame one of us had to lose. It would be great if we could both go. ”
NC State was late in the second OT within 86-84. Christyn Williams made a free throw and then a plant with 21 seconds left to give UConn an 89-85 lead.
Jakia Brown-Turner – who forced the second overtime on a 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds left in the first extra period – then made an attempt to get the Wolfpack inside two, but Williams had an inside attack switched down to ensure victory.
UConn lost senior center Dorka Juhasz earlier in the game due to a forearm injury.
“This team has been through so much and it has only made us stronger,” said Bueckers. “And if we see one of our sisters go down, we will do it for her. We all love each other, we are all so close to each other. It just shows what we’ve been through all year. Lots of adversity, highs and lows, up and down. We stayed calm and stayed together. “
Brown-Turner finished with 20 points for NC State (32-4), and Elissa Cunane scored 18. Williams had 21 points for UConn and freshman Azzi Fudd had 19.
Both teams had chances to win in the last 30 seconds of regulation. UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa was overwhelmed with 28 seconds left and missed both free throws. On subsequent ball possession, Diamond Johnson dribbled down the clock and drove before returning to Kai Crutchfield, who was far away on a deep 3-pointer from the wing.
It was the first double-OT women’s NCAA tournament in the regional finals or later. UConn won an overtime match for the first time in its major tournament history; the Huskies were 0-5 after regulation.
NC State tried for the second time in school history to reach the national semifinals. The Wolfpack made it this far in 1998 and beat the Huskies in the Elite Eight that season to progress. None of the current roster was born then.
“This trip was incredible and this team has done so much and achieved so much,” said Cunane, a senior. “Although it hurts now, proud of everything we have done this season. I can no longer be proud of the team. “
Crutchfield, Raina Perez and Kayla Jones all returned this year with their extra COVID-19 season granted by the NCAA to try and lift the Wolfpack to new heights. They succeeded and progressed further than the team had in 24 years.
“What a legacy they have now,” coach Wes Moore said. “Another step would have made it better.”
The Huskies have handled injuries and COVID-19 issues all season and have had their most losses since 2012, including their first conference defeat in nine years and their first defeat against an unranked team since 2012.
Things have seemed right for UConn since the team started getting healthy, starting with Bueckers.
UConn suffered a major blow when Juhasz went down just above her left wrist with a terrifying injury in the first half. She was violated with a kickback attempt and ended up uncomfortable as she tried to put her hands down to support her fall.
Juhasz was on the floor in tears and was helped back to the locker room by her team with seven points. The Huskies extended the advantage to 10 before NC State reduced it by half to 34-28.
She returned to the bench at the beginning of the fourth quarter, dressed in warm-ups with her arm in a sling.
“It was one of those, you’ve seen it on TV before and it was not pretty,” Auriemma said. “They had a chance to see it up close. They were pretty shocked about it. You could see it in their faces. “
UConn and Stanford have a long history in the Final Four, having played five times in the national semifinals or championship game – most recently in 2014. UConn is 4-1, including a victory in the Final Four in Minneapolis in 1995.
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