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UConn’s Paige Bueckers finds a way to do the unpredictable

(Amanda Hajjar/Just Women’s Sports)

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — In the days after Paige Bueckers went down with a tibial plateau fracture in her knee in early December, and it was determined she would need surgery to repair it, Geno Auriemma tried to keep a level head. The coach has pretty much seen it all during his 37 years of coaching at UConn, and he knew there were more benefits to taking the long-term approach with Bueckers’ recovery than rushing her back.

Auriemma stuck to that plan as his star sophomore guard returned to the court late last month, limiting her minutes and easing her back into the leading role everyone came to expect of her as a freshman. Even after the Huskies’ Sweet 16 win over Indiana on Saturday, Auriemma said Bueckers was “not quite” back to her old self.

So on Monday night, when Buckers took over the game in overtime, scoring 15 of UConn’s 30 points in the two extra periods to lead her team to a 91-87 win over NC State and a berth in its 14th straight Final Four, Auriemma could only shake his head.

When a player like Bueckers steps into the bright lights of an NCAA Tournament game, there’s only so much you can predict.

“There was a point in time during the season where I really said to the team, ‘I don’t know if you guys are all walking around in practice every day going, that’s OK, it doesn’t matter how bad we are, Paige is coming back and she’ll fix everything. I said, ‘I’m not counting on it,’” Auriemma recalled from the podium, trying to put words to what he called “one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of” at UConn.

“But when it was evident that there was a chance, by that time a lot of other players on our team had gotten a lot better. I think if Paige had come back to the exact same team, we probably wouldn’t be in this game, given what happened.”

In the 19 games Bueckers missed while recovering from her injury, Auriemma needed other players to step up. The same was true when freshman Azzi Fudd was sidelined for over two months with a foot injury. Freshman Caroline Ducharme and sophomore Nika Mühl suddenly were playing more minutes and, though they might not have realized it at the time, earning valuable experience for March.

That evolution has turned UConn into a well-rounded and fearsome team after an uncharacteristic season in which it lost to multiple unranked teams. It was just No. 1 seed NC State’s luck to draw the Huskies into their quarter of the bracket when they were peaking at the right time.

Where Fudd steadied UConn’s offense throughout the game Monday, scoring 17 of her 19 points in regulation and making critical free throws down the stretch, Bueckers played the part of closer. Jakia Brown-Turner’s improbable 3-pointer with 0.3 seconds left to send the game to double overtime and keep NC State’s hopes alive was just the fuel Bueckers needed.

“I mean, that whole game she was amazing,” said Fudd, “but I think NC State hitting that big shot to put us into that second overtime on her was the best thing they could do, but the worst thing they could do.”

NC State knew it, too. Coach Wes Moore said that they focused on getting the ball out of Bueckers’ hands late in the game — just like they did against Notre Dame freshman Olivia Miles in the fourth quarter on Saturday — but this time, the effort was fruitless.

It had been a while since the reigning National Player of the Year had tapped into her magic, but in overtime Monday, Paige Bueckers became Paige Bueckers.

“Just my teammates and my coaches just instilling that confidence in me that they trust me in these moments and they trust me with the ball and they trust me to do the right thing,” Bueckers said. “I just wanted to continue to play, and Coach is always huge on me about just making sure just to find a way to win. So I think that was the key tonight.”

UConn’s Final Four streak was far from Auriemma’s mind when Bueckers went down nearly four months ago. He knew he’d need her healthy for whenever UConn made a run at its 12th national championship.

He just didn’t realize that moment would be now. There’s only so much you can predict with your players, but then again, this player was made for these moments.

“It could end tomorrow. It could end next week. It could end next year, like everything else ends,” Auriemma said. “But kids like Paige won’t let it end, and there has to be that kind of kid.”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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