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Will Paige Bueckers Save UCONN?

Minneapolis, MN March 16: Hopkins guard Paige Bueckers (1) was defended by Stillwater guard Sara Scalia (14) in the second half. (Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

For the first time since the departure of the 2004 recruiting class, UConn basketball will graduate a senior class that has never won a national championship. Following three straight trips to the Final Four, UConn’s season, like everyone else’s, was cut short with the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.

When Crystal Dangerfield, the nation’s fourth-ranked recruit, teamed up with Molly Bent and Kyla Irwin to sign with Geno Auriemma and UConn back in 2016, the class ranked 14th in the country. (For reference, both UConn’s 2015 and 2017 classes ranked third.) UConn had won the last four national titles and 75 consecutive games when Dangerfield, Bent and Irwin showed up at Gampel Pavilion. (The similarity to the group that arrived in the fall of 2004 is poignant; at that time, UConn was coming off three consecutive national championships.)

Following the departure of that trophy-less 2004 class in 2008, UConn claimed six of the next eight national championships, as first Maya Moore and then Breanna Stewart carried the Huskies to multiple undefeated seasons. Now, UConn fans — and UConn fans alone — are hoping another top recruit can bring them back to dominance.

“You know how many religions there are in the world?” Auriemma recently joked. “The one religion in women’s college basketball is praying that UConn loses.”

The impending arrival of Paige Bueckers should trigger an upswing in prayers from those devoted to hating the Huskies. The top ranked recruit in her class and the Gatorade National Player of the Year is already being looked at as the future of the program, if not the sport altogether.

And it’s not just fans who are riding the hype. According to UConn coach Geno Auriemma, by the end of next year, “I am going to be saying, ‘You know what? We wouldn’t have won the national championship without her.’”

Yup, Bueckers is that good. Her profile on espnW’s Hoopgurlz makes it sound like she was created in a basketball lab: a “skilled combo-guard” who “delivers offensive production off the dribble,” Bueckers is “effortless and poised in the back court,” “finds the rim with regularity,” and brings a “dose of swagger” and “scorer’s mentality” to the backcourt.

She’s already an internet celebrity, with dozens of YouTube videos documenting her high school exploits. And with over 400,000 followers on Instagram, she’s a superstar built for the digital age.

Auriemma has said that the only player to ever show up to the first day of practice as a polished player was Maya Moore. Even Breanna Stewart struggled at times in her first season. Of course, the Breanna Stewart Era ended with four national championships and an unworldly 151-5 record — but four of those losses came in her freshman season.

Bueckers will have her struggles as well, but like Stewart, we shouldn’t expect them to last.

“By herself, she can’t win anything,” Auriemma has said. “But with the people I think we are going to surround her with, I think we can do great things.”

Bueckers will be joined by 21st- and 26th- ranked Aaliyah Edwards and Mir McLean, both wings, while Auriemma will also welcome Nika Muhl and Piath Gabriel, a pair of international recruits.

Stewart was not without help herself. Moriah Jefferson was the second-ranked player in the class, and the third member was five-star Morgan Tuck. As you might imagine, the class was ranked first overall, and they graduated as the winningest group in college basketball history, the only recruiting class to ever win four national titles.

In that 2016 title run, UConn throttled Mississippi State 98-38 in the NCAA Tournament, prompting a heated and pointless national discussion about whether UConn’s dominance was bad for the sport.

The answer was always no, but whatever the case, UConn has been significantly less dominant since that tournament run. A year after that 98-38 win, Mississippi State beat UConn in overtime to advance to the national championship game. UConn has subsequently stalled in the Final Four each of the last three seasons.

On one hand, UConn is leaving the American Athletic Conference with a perfect 139-0 record (they’ll rejoin the Big East next year). On the other, this is UConn: the only wins that matter are championships, and there haven’t been any of those since 2016. This year, all three of UConn’s losses came at the hands of would-be first seeds, putting into doubt their chances of breaking their dry spell, even if the tournament hadn’t been cancelled. None of the losses were especially close, with a 74-56 defeat to Oregon marking the program’s worst home defeat in 15 years.

Is UConn in a rut? Not by any objective standard (they’re 135-8 over the last four years, after all). But the Huskies have clearly been falling short of their own expectations. Enter Paige Bueckers.

Even with the expected freshman year growing pains, there are two specific aspects of Bueckers’ play that should translate to the collegiate game right away: her guard play and her swagger.

At the end of the 2016 season, when Stewart celebrated a 38-0 record, her team led all 344 Division I programs in 11 major statistical categories and were top-10 in nine more. Most importantly, UConn paced the country in assists, assists per game and assist to turnover ratio.

Bueckers has incredible vision and the talent to put the ball where she wants it. In high school, she has averaged 9.4 assists per game, good for fifth in the country, and has led Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota to a 30-0 record. She’ll make an already talented UConn squad surrounding her even better.

The impact of Bueckers’ confidence is more difficult to quantify. It can be seen in a video posted to her own Instagram, in which Bueckers confidently says that her defender “can’t guard me.” It can be seen in her full-court passes and her pull-up jumpers. It can be seen in her decision to sign with UConn, the most storied program in the sport.

No one player can guarantee a national championship. But with Auriemma, who turned 66 in March, saying he could see himself coaching another five years, UConn is on a path to regain their throne. The success of South Carolina in year one with their top-ranked freshman class speaks to the impact of a strong, cohesive group, no matter their age.

UConn is used to winning. For most of this decade, that is all they have done. Next year, Bueckers will see if she can inaugurate a new decade as successful as the last.

Costa Rica Holds USWNT to 0-0 Draw in Frustrating Olympic Send-Off

USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan dribbles the ball by Costa Rica forward Melissa Herrera and midfielder Gloriana Villalobos
The USWNT had 12 shots on goal on Tuesday despite failing to find the back of the net. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The USWNT didn't quite get the going away party they were hoping for, settling for a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday in their final tune-up match before the 2024 Olympics kick off next week.

The US produced 26 shots — 12 on target — alongside 67 touches in the box, the most in any match where they failed to convert a single goal since at least 2015, per Opta. Yet they also faced a heroic performance from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermúdez, who tallied 12 saves on the night.

USWNT starters remained mostly intact

After Saturday's win over Mexico, USWNT manager Emma Hayes opted for a very similar starting XI, only swapping Crystal Dunn in for Jenna Nighswonger due to load management.

Named starter Rose Lavelle was a late scratch from the lineup after team warmups, with US Soccer attributing her last-minute absence to "leg tightness." Lavelle was replaced by midfielder Korbin Albert, giving the US a slightly less aggressive attacking edge throughout the match.

Casey Krueger, Lynn Williams, Jaedyn Shaw, Emily Sonnett, and rookie Croix Bethune all got minutes in the second half, coming off the bench to contend with Washington, DC's brutally hot conditions.

USWNT forward Sophia Smith and Costa Rica midfielder Gloriana Villalobos battle for the ball
Costa Rica managed to fend off the USWNT with a strong defensive low-block. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY)

Costa Rica's low-block spelled trouble

"Listen, if you play a game of percentages or law of averages, we're creating more and more high-quality chances, and we're getting numbers into key areas — we're getting touches in the key areas," Hayes told reporters after the match, calling attention to Costa Rica's strong defensive low-block.

"The last part's the hardest part. And I'm really patient, because I've coached teams that have to break blocks down, and it's the hardest thing to do in coaching," she continued.

Hayes also noted the team's lack of training time under her management: The decorated coach officially joined the US in early June after finishing the WSL season with her previous club, league champs Chelsea FC.

USWNT pose for a picture after their send-off friendly against costa rica at Audi Field
The USWNT's Olympic group stage run kicks off on July 25th. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Where to watch the USWNT's Olympic games

Tuesday's draw is just the second time the USWNT has entered a major tournament off a non-win. Back in 2015, the US embarked on their legendary World Cup campaign after a 0-0 send-off draw with South Korea.

The next time the USWNT takes the pitch will be at the Paris Olympics, where they'll play Zambia on Thursday, July 25th at 3 PM ET. The match will be broadcast live on USA, with streaming options available on Peacock.

The Late Sub Podcast: This Is Sophia Smith’s USWNT Attack Now

Sophia Smith dribbles during the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico on Saturday.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico last Saturday. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins breaks down the days leading up to the first USWNT Olympic send-off friendly, discussing player performances, things that worked well on the pitch, and what still needs developing as coach Emma Hayes's team moves towards a crucial Olympic competition set to will dictate the future of the team.

She then sets her sights on the WNBA, previewing WNBA All-Star Weekend and chatting with Gatorade Women’s Basketball Player of the Year Joyce Edwards alongside Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally.

Subscribe to The Late Sub to never miss an episode.

USWNT Looks to Extend Winning Streak in Final Olympic Send-Off

USWNT striker Sophia Smith dribbles through Costa Rican defenders during a 2022 Concacaf W Championship game.
The USWNT last took on Costa Rica at the 2022 Concacaf Championship semifinal. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The USWNT’s last tune-up match before the Olympics has arrived, with the FIFA world No. 5 US looking for an 18th-straight all-time win over No. 44 Costa Rica tonight at Washington, DC's Audi Field.

Just three days after a redemptive 1-0 victory over No. 29 Mexico, head coach Emma Hayes’s Paris-bound roster appears to be finding its stride. Calling Saturday’s win "a step in the right direction," Hayes went on to say, "I think we’re only scratching the surface. I think there’s a lot of layers to go from everyone."

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 13: USWNT coach Emma Hayes stands on the field before a game between Mexico and USWNT
The new-look USWNT is looking to hit its stride after several matches under Hayes. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes's USWNT is still finding its footing

With their first Olympic group stage game against No. 64 Zambia slated for July 25th, the new-look USWNT — which features the youngest roster in 16 years — is working to define its style of play.

While the USWNT’s signature ability to score in transition remains a strong point, the team also acknowledged their shaky first half on Saturday, with midfielder Rose Lavelle commenting that they're "working on being a little more tactically flexible... We’re trying to, as a group, learn how to adjust on the fly and be a little smarter with our adjustments during the games."

The patience required to choose their moments, along with the team’s ability to read and anticipate each other's movements, is clutch to increasing effectiveness in the areas where the USWNT appeared most disjointed against Mexico.

At stake is an Olympic podium finish, where the US hopes to improve on their bronze medal performance in Tokyo — but the team also aims to make a splash amidst their increasingly sophisticated opponents.

Costa Rica captain Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez chases the ball during a match against Panama in 2020.
Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez, Costa Rica's captain, is the only NWSL on their Olympic roster. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

Rodriguez leads a rising Costa Rica team

If improving offensive unity and production is tonight’s goal, Las Ticas could provide the ideal matchup: In their 17 previous meetings, the USWNT has outscored Costa Rica 90-2 overall.

That said, Costa Rica has switched things up since the sides last met in July 2022, with the US defeating the Central American squad 3-0 in the Concacaf Championship semifinal. Las Ticas competed in the 2023 World Cup and reached the Gold Cup quarterfinals earlier this year, where they narrowly fell to No. 8 Canada in extra time.

Costa Rica is captained by 30-year-old Angel City midfielder Rocky Rodriguez, the lone NWSL player on their roster and, in 2015, the first Costa Rica national to ever score in a Women's World Cup.

In addition to maintaining a perfect record against Costa Rica, the USWNT will look to extend their current unbeaten streak to nine, which includes three shutouts in Hayes’s first three matches at the helm.

Lindsay Horan drinks water before the USWNT's match against Ireland in April 2023.
An excessive heat warning is in effect for Washington, DC today. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

Where to watch the USWNT vs. Costa Rica friendly

Expect some hydration breaks due to DC's scorching temperatures during tonight’s 7:30 PM ET match, airing live on TNT and streaming on Peacock.

TruTV and Max will simultaneously air the first-ever USWNT altcast, hosted by retired USWNT star Sam Mewis, former USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn, and Men in Blazers founder Roger Bennett.

Sizing Up USWNT’s 2024 Olympic Competition

Germany's Giulia Gwinn steps to the ball while Iceland's Sandra Jessen slides in during Friday's UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match.
Germany lost their Euros qualifier against Iceland 3-0 on Friday, less than two weeks before Olympic football begins. (Hulda Margret/Getty Images)

With Olympic soccer kicking off in just over a week, the USWNT isn't the only national squad prepping for the podium with a series of pre-Paris matchups. Both international friendlies and important qualifiers are on the docket, with several European teams competing for a spot in the UEFA Women's EURO 2025.

Regardless of the stakes, these performances might provide some insight into what the USWNT can expect once the Summer Games begin.

Czechia national soccer team celebrates as Spain women's national soccer team defender Laia Aleixandri leaves the pitch
FIFA World No. 1 Spain fell to Czechia on Friday in a 2025 Euros qualifier. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Pre-Olympic matches expose problems for top teams

Of the 12 Olympic teams, recent outings from FIFA world No. 1 Spain and No. 4 Germany featured the most shocking outcomes.

Despite dominating possession behind an opening goal from 2023 Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí, the 2023 World Cup winners fell 2-1 to No. 30 Czechia in Friday's Euros qualifier — their first loss of 2024. They managed to bounce back on Tuesday, however, beating Belgium 2-0 to finish out the league stage on top with 15 points.

Spain heads into the Summer Games aiming to become the first women’s team to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back-to-back, though they’ll need to reclaim their composure to achieve that feat in the face of an Olympic group that includes Japan, Nigeria, and Brazil.

France defender Sakina Karchaoui celebrates her opening goal during Friday's 2-1 win over Sweden.
Defender Sakina Karchaoui scored the opening goal in France's 2-1 win over Sweden on Friday. (ARNAUD FINISTRE/AFP via Getty Images)

No. 2 France took down No. 6 Sweden 2-1 in Friday's Euro qualifier, but flipped the script on Tuesday with a 3-1 loss to last-place No. 25 Republic of Ireland, who notched their first win. However, thanks to England's 0-0 draw with Sweden — also on Tuesday — France still topped their qualifying group with 12 points. Les Bleus will look for more consistent results going into the Olympics, where they're set to face Colombia, New Zealand, and Guinea in the group stage.

But it was Germany who stumbled the hardest, losing out 3-0 to No. 14 Iceland in their own Friday qualifier. After the match, Germany's head coach Horst Hrubesch didn’t mince words.

"We have to assert ourselves from the start in the individual battles. The way we played just wasn’t good," Hrubesch told reporters. "We deserved to lose. We handed them all three goals on a plate."

Tuesday also saw improvement for Germany, as they routed Austria 4-0 to claim first place in the group standings with 15 points.

But the earlier loss was still foreboding for this German squad. The two-time world champions fell to 3-2 to Zambia just weeks before the 2023 World Cup, before failing to advance past the World Cup group stage for the first time in the tournament’s history. Germany also faces some tough Olympic group stage competition, battling Australia and the USWNT before crossing paths with Zambia once again.  

Team Canada celebrate their victory in the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Match with Sweden
Team Canada has their work cut out for them if they want to repeat their Tokyo gold medal run. (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Friendlies rally Olympic teams outside Europe

Defending Olympic champs FIFA World No. 8 Canada defeated No. 12 Australia 2-1 on Saturday, with KC Current forward Nichelle Prince and ex-Gotham striker Evelyne Viens both scoring in the friendly. Canada will play world No. 36 Nigeria in a closed-door friendly on Wednesday before kicking off their Olympic campaign against New Zealand on July 25th. 

For their part, No. 28 New Zealand drew 1-1 in a friendly with No. 64 Zambia on Saturday, while non-Olympic-bound Ecuador handed No. 22 Colombia a 2-1 send-off loss.

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