All-American Paige Bueckers returned to pre-injury form Monday, carrying No. 2 UConn to a nail-biting, double-overtime victory over No. 1 NC State, 91-87, to claim the Bridgeport regional crown. It is the 14th straight Final Four for the Huskies.
In one of the most compelling games in tournament history, the two teams went bucket for bucket down the stretch, as Bueckers scored 15 of her 27 points on the night in the extra periods. UConn’s ability to make a critical basket with seconds left sealed their win.
Christyn Williams threw in 21 points for the Huskies and Azzi Fudd, 19. Jakia Brown-Turner led the Wolfpack with 20 points, while Elissa Cunane had 18.
“The team we played today never thought they were going to lose,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of their opponents. “We had the lead for like 39 minutes, and they played like they were winning the whole game.”
“We played a team that you knew, no matter what was going on, this game was not going to end until they decided that they had enough chances to win. It was just an incredible feeling to watch us make the plays that we made, and watch them make the plays that they made. It was the kind of game that makes you appreciate how great this game can be.”
NC State, in their first Elite Eight since 1998, played a game worthy of their No. 1 seed. Down by 10 midway through the second period, they commenced a 9-2 run across halftime to cut it to one, for the first of many times, just 90 seconds into the second half.
They took the lead on the first basket of the fourth quarter, after which the teams exchanged buckets throughout that period, which tied the game five times.
With 30 seconds left in regulation, Olivia Nelson-Ododa grabbed an offensive board for UConn, was blocked, grabbed another offensive board, and then was fouled by the Wolfpack’s Kayla Jones. The score was 61-61. Nelson-Ododa went to the free throw line with a chance to win the game; she missed both.
The Husky defense held, and Kai Crutchfield’s desperation three-point attempt at the buzzer bounced off the rim for their opponents. Overtime.
Bueckers, who missed two months of the season after a knee injury – and knee surgery – in December, had come back slowly. But that changed in the quarterfinals. She flipped a switch in overtime, willing her team to victory with 10 points in the first five minutes. She drew three fouls, hitting all six free throws, and hit two 14-foot jumpers. Every one of her scores but the last regained a lead that NC State had taken back.
Kai Crutchfield (know as “Clutch-field) was the star of the first OT for the Wolfpack. She hit a three, and was fouled on another. She made two free-throws and missed one, bringing her team within one when Bueckers drew a foul and hit both shots to take a three-point lead, with six seconds remaining.
Not enough. NC State advanced the ball with a timeout, and found Brown-Turner in the right corner. She drained the three at the buzzer, with Bueckers right in her face.
Double overtime. The first ever in the Elite Eight or later.
With all the back-and-forth, neither team ever gave up. There were no recriminations. No moping. Just more great basketball.
“I thought [Brown-Turner’s tying three] was the one that was just gonna make our make our team feel like ‘What else are we supposed to do?’” Auriemma said. “The look on their faces was a little bit of, ‘How can this happen right now, After all we’ve done?’”
“But when they got to the bench and we came back out, it was more of ‘Alright, this is just one more thing. It’s just one more thing. And then Paige said ‘That’s fine, this is one more thing.’ And now she decides,. ‘I’m going to do what I do.’ And the rest is in the scorebook.”
Indeed, after weeks of feeling her way back, Bueckers scored 4-5 field goals and six of six free throws. She looked like the player of last season, digging in when her team needed her most.
“During crunch time in close games like that I just try so stay composed,” she said. “I try to keep being that leader for my team and just play with poise and play with calmness.”
Bueckers opened the second extra period with a three. Cunane answered with a two, and Bueckers hit a 15-footer on the next possession. Aaliyah Edwards rebounded a Wolfpack missed layup, was fouled and hit both free throws (she had missed a pair in the second quarter) to give UConn a five-point lead, the largest for either team since mid-way through the third period.
Not enough. Crutchfield hit another three from the same right corner. Cunane blocked Williams’ layup on the other end, but Williams kicked the ball to Fudd outside the arc. Fudd’s three bounced off the rim, but Edwards flew in from the top of the key and tapped in the ball in mid-air for the Huskies’ 13th offensive board, and 13th and 14th second-chance points.
Cunane answered on the other end, and the lead was two again. Bueckers missed a two, her only missed field goal of the overtimes. Cunane grabbed the rebound, but NC State turned the ball over at the other end. Williams drove to the lane and scored, escaping a charge call because her defender had a heel in the restricted area. She hit 1-of-2 free throws, but Boyd drew a foul at the other end, and also hit 1-of-2.
The Huskies had the ball ahead by two with 32 seconds remaining. The Wolfpack jumped into a full-court press on the ensuing in-bounds, and even tipped the ball at mid-court. But Bueckers secured it and passed to Williams, who drove right at Cunane for a layup to put UConn up by four.
Still not good enough.
Brown-Turner grabbed an O-board and scored on a put-back, with 10 seconds left. The Huskies advanced the ball with its final timeout.
The NC State press nearly drew a five-second call, but Nelson-Ododa got the ball in to Fudd, trapped against the sideline. Fudd bounced it to Evina Westbrook in the corner. As the defense closed on her, she flipped the ball over Cunane to an unguarded Williams in the paint. Her layup with five seconds remaining sealed the victory.
“In that overtime we were thinking, ‘I need to score next time down the floor, because we can’t stop them going down the other end,’” Auriemma said. “And I think they felt like ‘we better get a bucket because we can’t stop them down the other end.’ And it was just back and forth back and forth and both teams had kids that just kept making one big play after another after another and usually somebody gives in at some point, you know, and says I can’t do this anymore.”
Cunane said her team refused to give up.
“This team has absolutely no quit in us,” she said. “Even if we start off a game bad…we’re not going to give up. I don’t think for a second on that court we gave up or stopped fighting.”
Bueckers was named regional most outstanding player, while Fudd and Williams joined her on the all-region team, as did Cunane.
In a stat sheet that reflected the closeness of the game, each team had 39 rebounds, each team shot just over 48 percent, each team committed 16 fouls. The differences? The Huskies had 14 second-chance points, while the Wolfpack had just three. UConn had just eight turnovers, giving up six points. NC State had 14 turnovers, which their opponents converted into 16 points.
But while the Wolfpack hit 16-19 free throws, the Huskies nearly gave the game away by hitting just 12 of 20 from the line.
UConn will play reigning national champion Stanford in Minneapolis Friday. The Cardinal have been to 14 Final Fours, losing in the semis nine times.
The teams have met in the semifinal four times, with Stahford losing in 1995, 2009, and 2014 as a No. 2 seed, and the Huskies losing in 2008 when Stanford was a No. 2. UConn entered each of those games as a No. 1 seed.