The legend of Paige Bueckers grows in UConn WBB's win over South Carolina
It felt like an eternity that the ball floated above the rim.
Paige Bueckers heaved a shot in the final moments of overtime that clanged off the back iron and bounced straight up, reaching as high as the shot clock above the backboard.
As the ball hung in the air, so too did the game. No. 2 UConn women’s basketball led by one point over No. 1 South Carolina in overtime. A basket would seal the game. A miss could give the Gamecocks a chance to win the game on the other end of the court.
The clock melted away from 14 seconds when Bueckers launched an off-balance shot with a defender in her face from the top of the arc. 12.5 seconds when it hit the rim. It took nearly a full second for the ball to climb into the air and fall back down to Earth.
The result seemed nearly impossible, yet simultaneously predictable. The ball dropped straight through the cylinder, catching all net on its way through to put the Huskies up four. UConn’s bench erupted in celebration as the limited fans in attendance went berserk. Bueckers let out a hearty scream and nearly took Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s hand off with a forceful high-five.
“It felt good when I left my hand. Seeing it hit the back, it bounced straight up so I was like ‘Man, it’s gotta go in,” Bueckers said. “It looked good, felt good. But yeah, I would say that was a really nice bounce.”
“We just knew it was going in. It was not a surprise,” Nika Mühl declared. “That's Paige. That's what she does. She does it every day in practice so it was no surprise.”
“I knew it was going in. I swear, I swear. I knew it was going in,” Nelson-Ododa added. “As soon as the ball went up like that, I had no doubt.”
It was the cap on yet another remarkable performance by Bueckers, who scored 31 of the Huskies’ 63 points and made 14 of the team’s 29 baskets. It was also her third consecutive game eclipsing the 30-point mark, which catapulted her into the record books as the first UConn player ever to do so.
Think about it: Bueckers, in just her 14th games in college, accomplished something that nobody else in the Huskies’ long, illustrious history has ever done. Not Diana Taurasi. Or Sue Bird. Or Maya Moore. Or Breanna Stewart. Or Napheesa Collier. Just Bueckers.
Some of that is because UConn didn’t rely on any of those other players the way this year’s team leans on Bueckers. But that also means nobody else received the same defensive attention, which makes Bueckers’ exploits even more impressive.
“It's been a long time since one player’s had to carry a team as much as she's had to in some of these games,” Auriemma said.
“I marvel sometimes at how hard she has to work because of the defensive attention that she gets every single night,” he added later.
While Buekcers played well throughout, she took her game to another level in the closing minutes. She scored UConn’s final 13 points, including all nine in overtime, and didn’t miss any of her last five shots. With the pressure at its highest, she didn’t even blink.
“She's a player,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “She makes big shots when her number’s called time and time again.”
Bueckers has shown she's at her best when the lights are brightest. In her last five games – three of which have been against ranked opponents and another versus a likely NCAA Tournament team – she’s averaging 28.4 points per game while shooting at a 61 percent clip – including 65 percent from three.
During the last five minutes of regulation and overtime in UConn’s three games decided by single-digits (Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina), Bueckers scored 24 of the team’s 30 total points on 9-10 shooting – and hasn’t missed any of her four attempts from behind the arc.
“She's doing it in pressure situations, which is incredible too especially at her age,” Nelson-Ododa said. “She's just able to really take over a game and she just has this constant composure about herself. There's not really too many dips or anything with her especially in games like this.”
It helps that Bueckers plays with supreme confidence without ever crossing into cockiness or arrogance. She knows exactly what she can do on the court and how to do it and expects every shot that leaves her hands to go in. So with that much self-assurance, does she ever surprise herself?
“Yeah, going 1-6 from three was pretty disappointing, honestly,” the freshman said with a smirk. “But yeah – no.”
Again, Bueckers is just 14 games into her UConn career. This is supposed to be a time where she’s still trying to adjust to the college game and doesn’t quite have her feet underneath her yet. Instead, she already has a pair of signature moments thanks to her clutch three at Tennessee and now her game-clinching shot against South Carolina, and has put herself in the National Player of the Year conversation.
Bueckers is already proving to be a special player and her performance on Monday night was just the latest addition to her growing legend.
“She's that player,” Auriemma said. “She's that player that comes along that people talk about. ‘Hey, did you see that kid from Connecticut?’ She’s that kid.”