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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.