Bueckers goes off; Geno calls her 'best in America'


STORRS, Conn. — A year ago this week, Paige Bueckers went to her car and got emotional after her UConn Huskies defeated the Baylor Bears in the second round of the women’s NCAA tournament. Bueckers, at the time out for the season with a torn ACL, wanted nothing more than to play in those high-stakes games, with electric crowds.

She “prayed so hard a year ago today,” Bueckers said Monday, “to be in my shoes where I’m at right now.”

Now playing in her first NCAA tournament in over 700 days, Bueckers added to her legend Monday by delivering 32 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and a block to lift the 3-seed Huskies over 6-seed Syracuse 72-64 in a competitive second-round matchup in front of a sold-out Gampel Pavilion crowd.

With the win, UConn extended its NCAA tournament-record streak of consecutive Sweet 16 appearances to 30.

After scoring 28 points in the Huskies’ first-round win over Jackson State, Bueckers now has 60 points to start the NCAA tournament, the most for a UConn player through the first two games since Kerry Bascom’s 62 in 1991. Bueckers is also the first Division I player in the past 25 years with at least 60 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists through the first two games of the tournament.

Her 32 points Monday — achieved largely by dissecting the Orange’s zone and making them pay as she found openings inside the paint — are an NCAA tournament career-best.

“Paige was amazing her freshman year … [Now] she’s way better,” Syracuse coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. “I’ve known Geno since I was a freshman at Syracuse University. Paige is one of the top three that ever came through those doors.”

The redshirt junior scored her final basket of the game with 1:32 to play, helping ward off a furious Syracuse run as the Orange took advantage of UConn point guard Nika Muhl fouling out midway through the fourth quarter. But Bueckers still made winning plays after that, dishing the ball to freshman KK Arnold for a 3-pointer with 29 seconds remaining, coming through with the final defensive rebound to seal the win, and helping UConn hold Syracuse scoreless from the field in the final 1:53.

“We have the best player in America,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “The stats will tell you one thing … But it’s when they happen and how they impact the game that’s so remarkable. I just think this team will go as far as she’s able to carry that kind of a load. As long as she keeps getting a little bit of contributions from everybody.

“You need people who can make winning plays at big moments, especially the last five minutes of the game. You need people that can make those plays, the shots that they have to make, the rebounds that they have to get, the loose balls they got to get, the stops they have to have.”

UConn led for the vast majority of the contest, jumping ahead by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. But the momentum started to shift once, with Syracuse within eight, Muhl picked up three fouls in 30 seconds and fouled out, and the Orange ultimately cut the deficit to two.

“We have the best player in America. The stats will tell you one thing … But it’s when they happen and how they impact the game that’s so remarkable. I just think this team will go as far as she’s able to carry that kind of a load. As long as she keeps getting a little bit of contributions from everybody.”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma on Paige Bueckers

Syracuse star Dyaisha Fair, guided by Muhl, was limited to 2 points in the first half before finishing with 20 overall to keep the Orange within striking distance. Their season-high 13 3s, with 9 combined from freshman Sophie Burrows and junior Georgia Woolley, helped enormously, too.

Fair, a fifth-year senior, ends her storied collegiate career with 3,403 career points at Buffalo and Syracuse, and Monday became the third-leading Division I women’s basketball scorer, passing Jackie Stiles and Kelsey Mitchell.

“At the end of the day, she’s never going to stop trying. She’s never going to stop believing in herself,” Legette-Jack said of Fair. “Whether she made a point after the second half or not, her fight back was bigger than any kind of point that she’s ever scored.”

UConn secured a regional semifinal matchup against 7-seed Duke, which upset second-seeded Ohio State on Sunday.

Fresh on the Huskies’ minds is last year’s Sweet 16, when their streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances was snapped with a shocking upset to the Buckeyes.

“We’re fortunate,” Auriemma said. “We get to go back to where it ended for us last year. I think we’re a different team, different mindset, and we’re hoping for a different outcome.”



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