By DOUG FEINBERG – AP Basketball Author
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — In a double-overtime thriller that seriously threatened UConn’s record streak of women’s Final Four appearances, Paige Bueckers prevailed for the Huskies — and earned a trip home to Minneapolis.
The sensational sophomore scored 15 of her 27 points after regulation, and UConn defeated North Carolina State 91-87 Monday night for their 14th straight Final Four.
“Two days ago I said: ‘Win or go home’, but we won and I’m still going home,” said Bückers, who missed almost three months this season due to a left knee injury. “This is crazy. I’m just so excited no matter the place, no matter where it is.”
Buckers, who grew up 10 miles outside the Final Four venue, scored the first five points in second overtime to win the Huskies (29-5), who will face defending champions Stanford in Friday night’s national semifinals.
Buckers returned from knee surgery last month that left her 19 games out and she hasn’t been quite the same in eight appearances before this one. But against NC State, she looked like the player to be named AP Player of the Year in 2021. She was named the Bridgeport Region’s Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.
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“Thank god Paige came back because she gives everyone so much confidence and then everyone just played and everyone took turns playing,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “It was just an amazing basketball game and a great showcase for our sport.”
Auriemma said it was one of the biggest games of his Hall of Fame career at UConn. The Huskies were ranked 5th in the most recent AP Top 25 prior to the tournament; the Wolfpack were No. 3 and both talented squads shone.
“It was just incredible. … Nobody wants to lose,” Auriemma said. “Everyone made one big game after another. Nobody backed down from that moment. Too bad one of us had to lose. It would be great if we could both go.”
NC State was within 86-84 late in the second OT. Christyn Williams made a free throw and then a layup with 21 seconds left to give UConn an 89-85 lead.
Jakia Brown-Turner – who in the first overtime forced the second overtime with a 3-pointer by 0.8 seconds – then made a layup to get the wolfpack within two, but Williams converted a layup from the inbounds, to seal the victory.
UConn had lost senior center Dorka Juhasz early in the game due to a forearm injury.
“This team has been through so much and it has only made us stronger,” Bückers said. “And if we see one of our sisters go down, we’ll do it for her. We all love each other, we are all so close. It just means what we’ve been through all year. A whole series of adversities, ups and downs, ups and downs. We stayed calm and we stayed together.”
Brown-Turner finished with 20 points for NC State (32-4) and Elissa Cunane had 18. Williams had 21 points for UConn and freshman Azzi Fudd had 19.
Both teams had chances of victory in the final 30 seconds of regulation. UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa was fouled with 28 seconds left and missed both free throws. On the ensuing possession, Diamond Johnson dribbles down the clock and drives before handing it back to Kai Crutchfield, who was wide off the wing with a deep 3-pointer.
This was the first double OT women’s NCAA tournament game in regional finals or later. UConn won an overtime game for the first time in its storied tournament history; the huskies had stood 0-5 after the regulation.
NC State attempted to reach the national semifinals for the second time in school history. The Wolfpack made it that far in 1998, beating the Huskies in the Elite Eight that season to progress. None of the current squad was born then.
“This journey has been incredible and this team has done so much and accomplished so much,” said Cunane, a senior. “Although it hurts at the moment, I’m proud of everything we’ve achieved this season. I couldn’t be prouder of the team.”
Crutchfield, Raina Perez and Kayla Jones all came back this year, using their extra COVID-19 season granted by the NCAA to try to take the wolf pack to new heights. They were successful and progressed farther than the team had in 24 years.
“What a legacy they have now,” said coach Wes Moore. “One more step would have made it better.”
Struggling with injuries and COVID-19 issues all season, the Huskies have had their most losses since 2012, including their first conference loss in nine years and their first loss to an unranked team since 2012.
Things have been looking good for UConn since the team recovered, starting with Buckers.
UConn suffered a major blow when Juhasz went down in the first half with a scary looking injury just above her left wrist. She was fouled on a putback attempt and landed awkwardly trying to put her hands down to brace her fall.
Juhasz lay on the floor in tears and was taken back to the dressing room with her team by seven points. The Huskies extended the lead to 10 before NC State cut it to 34-28 at halftime.
She returned to the bench early in the fourth quarter dressed in warm-up gear and with one arm in a sling.
“It was one of those things you’ve seen on TV before, and it wasn’t pretty,” Auriemma said. “They had a chance to see it up close. They were pretty shocked about it. You could see that on their faces.”
UConn and Stanford have storied histories in the Final Four, having played in the national semifinals or championship game five times — most recently in 2014. UConn is 4-1, including a Final Four win in Minneapolis in 2005.
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