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‘She’s basketball’: Paige Bueckers and Connecticut are Final Four-bound

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PORTLAND, Ore. — You’re Paige Bueckers, you just pushed your team to the Final Four and you can’t stop hearing your name. You have photos to take. You have so many people to hug. At this point, you’re used to people shouting for you – to them wanting something, to them hoping you’ll take a second of your time and slide it towards them.

You, 22, are an expert at balancing the desire for privacy with the expectations of the women’s basketball world. You’re a star, after all, and stars sign autographs when they’d rather soak in an ice bath. So you run across the field, spotting the two girls who have been screaming your name for almost 10 minutes. Your team, Connecticut, had just beaten USC, 80-73, at the Moda Center Monday night in Portland’s Region 3 final in the NCAA tournament. You sign a pink Paige Bueckers jersey, right on #5. You sign a red Chicago Bulls jersey, avoiding Michael Jordan’s No. 23.

You sign a sneaker. You sign a black shirt who may never be able to prove it. Just by moving you create 13 cameras and four security guards have to move as well. Your stat line, in the third Elite Eight win of your college career, was 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks. You played all 40 minutes on Monday. You also played the full 40 minutes on Saturday, when you and your team – missing six key players due to injuries – duke bordered.

No wonder you always hear your name.

“Today was one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever had in my life,” Bueckers said afterward, after the Huskies knocked off top-seeded USC. and freshman star JuJu Watkins. “I just saw where I was a year ago today, doing individual workouts, starting to feel the game of basketball again. … Now I’m here with my teammates and my coaching staff and we’re going to the Final Four.

A year ago, Bueckers was still recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, his second major injury in the span of about eight months. She watched Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese compete for the national championship, sidelined as women’s football exploded. But now she’ll face Clark and Iowa in Cleveland on Friday. South Carolina and North Carolina State will play in the other semifinal. Third-seeded U-Conn. we will see how far he can take this miraculous race.

On Monday, Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl never sat down, even after Muhl picked up her fourth foul in the third quarter. Without so many contributors, the Huskies don’t have the luxury of much rest. Edwards, a senior forward, finished with 24 points. When Muhl committed that fourth foul, Geno Auriemma, the Huskies’ 70-year-old coach, rested both elbows on the scorer’s table and closed his eyes. Thirteen minutes separated him from his record 23rd Final Four. The Huskies led by nine.

But it wasn’t just Muhl who was in trouble. Freshman guard KK Arnold also had four.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to foul,” said Muhl, a senior guard. “But I didn’t tell myself that I wasn’t going to have four.”

Knowing he couldn’t lose Muhl, Auriemma replaced Bueckers with Watkins, who finished with 29 points (and 10 rebounds) and broke the NCAA single-season scoring record for a freshman. From the start, though, guarding Watkins and guard McKenzie Forbes was a complete team effort. Watkins noted that every time she drove, she felt like there was another U-Conn. defender in her own way. The Huskies were constantly changing and trapping the Trojans’ scorers around ball screens.

In the midst of that effort, Bueckers faced USC’s bigs, then Watkins, then whoever Auriemma needed. As a freshman in 2021, after winning every player of the year award, she took U-Conn. to the Final Four. As a sophomore, she led the Huskies to the national championship game, lose to South Carolina. And there, on the other side of consecutive knee injuries, she is two victories away from what has eluded the Huskies since 2016.

“She plays basketball,” freshman guard Ashlynn Shade said. “She embodies greatness every time she steps on the field.”

“Because all kids have that, I know there’s a fear of, ‘What if I can’t?'” Auriemma said Monday night. “If someone tells you they don’t, they’re lying, okay? But the big guys…they put that in the back of their mind and they go out there and do what they do. We had some great ones on this Mount Rushmore. I don’t know if we could accommodate them all, you know? But all she needs is to win a national championship.

In the heart of the fourth quarter, like U-Conn. got away, Bueckers split a double team, nailed a floater, then immediately sprinted to take on guard Watkins. While breaking up USC’s press, she somehow kept an eye on Auriemma, taking the next call. And when the Huskies won, she was the first player to interrupt their celebration and join the handshake line.

His brain seems preloaded with all the possibilities on a basketball court. It processes at lightning speed.

But after signing up for these screaming girls, you – Paige Bueckers – are giving yourself a little treat. You breathe deeply. Then on the other side of the field, more fans waiting, more people begging for your attention, you scribble another set of autographs. You grab someone’s iPhone and take a selfie.

Above the tunnel, a teenager shouts, “Paige!” Look at me! Please look at me!”

Inside the tunnel, you can finally relax.

Ahead of you, as you head toward the locker room, you see Andrea Hudy, the Huskies’ director of sports performance. With only eight healthy fellows, it’s Hudy who helps everyone stay fresh. So you do a crow jump, hanging in the air, before smacking Hudson’s butt. Hudy shouts. You look over your shoulder, a huge smile on your face.

Once you join your teammates, you all prepare to spray Auriemma with your water bottles. When you do, a few splashes on the Portland Area Champion trophy in the corner, sitting there near a refrigerator. Of course, no one wants to damage it, even if your teammates dropped the trophy on the field near the Huskies bench earlier. You all hope to win a bigger one soon.

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