Will Paige Bueckers join UConn’s Mount Rushmore? She is two wins away

PORTLAND, Oregon. — The small group of young girls standing in the front row of the Moda Center, facing the court of the gym’s biggest star, must have shouted Paige Bueckers’ name 100 times.

They kept saying, “PAIGE, PAIGE, PAIGE, PAIGE,” until UConn guard KK Arnold noticed them.

“You should go take a picture with them,” Arnold told his teammate. Bueckers sheepishly made her way there, as fans clamored for autographs and beamed with excitement as she delivered.

Bueckers is unlike any of Geno Auriemma’s past superstars, he said earlier this week. On the one hand, the crowd can’t get enough of her, as was the case again Monday night, when she put on a clinic against USC in the Elite Eight with 28 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists to propel UConn to the finals. Four for the 23rd time in program history and third in four years.

On the other hand, she can be difficult to evaluate: she internalizes her emotions so much that sometimes Auriemma can’t read them. She saw her break down exactly once: in Tennessee, in her locker room, last year, when an ACL injury kept her from playing.

“She doesn’t show it,” Auriemma said. “Other players I have had who were of that level, they walked as if they were their own. They spoke as if they were their own. …Paige keeps it all inside and lets it out when necessary.”

In his own way, Bueckers let those emotions out Monday night.

As the seconds ticked away and Bueckers went down with the final rebound in an epic showdown between the No. 3-seeded Huskies against top-seeded USC, he dropped the ball and ran to midcourt to jump in celebration with his teammates. He placed a Final Four hat loosely on his head, posed for selfies and waved with both hands to the UConn crowd as he finally jumped into the tunnel.

There were times last year, sidelined by injury, when Bueckers forced herself to find joy outside of basketball. Not anymore.

“(The win) was one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said.

Now Bueckers is just two wins away from cementing herself as one of UConn’s all-time greats. Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore each won at least two national titles. Now it’s Bueckers’ turn, and perhaps the task ahead is even more daunting, considering he’s trying to lead the Huskies to their first national championship since 2016, a dry spell that’s considered an eon in Storrs. Connecticut.

“We’ve had some great (UConn players) on that Mount Rushmore,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know if we could accommodate them all. But yeah, all he needs is to win a national championship. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to do it next weekend.”

She will share the marquee with Caitlin Clark in Cleveland for another highly anticipated women’s college basketball showdown.

In Monday’s star-studded Elite Eight matchup against USC and freshman sensation JuJu Watkins, Bueckers did everything he could to help UConn steal the show. He shot 11 of 23, including 3 of 6 from beyond the arc for his 28 points, just one shy of Watkins. At halftime, Bueckers had 15 points to Watkins’ 13 as the superstars took turns exchanging decisive buckets.

Perhaps Bueckers’ most impressive sequence came in the third quarter, with about four minutes left, when she first hit a seemingly impossible jumper while being covered by a defender, then hit a 3-pointer on the next trip down the court to give UConn has a 6-point lead and a momentum shift.

UConn has been shorthanded this season due to injuries, and Bueckers has played all 40 minutes in each of the Huskies’ last three games.

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In addition to the offensive fireworks, when UConn guard Nika Mühl picked up her fourth foul with 3:05 left in the third quarter, Bueckers also took on the most daunting defensive task of the night in guarding Watkins.

Auriemma described Watkins as the toughest defensive assignment any of his guards have had this season and possibly at any point in their UConn careers. But while Watkins had her moments against Bueckers, hitting a pair of 3-pointers on her, Bueckers seemed to have a response of her own to end USC’s momentum.

“Paige always wants to be superhuman. You can’t hope to be, but she tries her best to be superhuman,” Auriemma said. “When you have players who think, ‘There’s nothing I can’t do, there’s nothing I can’t do,’ they’re just on another level. They play the game at another level. They think on a different level. “They inspire everyone around them.”

In other words: “Paige doing Paige things.”

UConn has a cross-country flight back to Storrs, Connecticut. for a few days before the Huskies headed to the Final Four.

It will be must-see television and Bueckers will once again have the weight of a spot in the national championship on his shoulders. But she will be ready.

“For Paige (the mindset is), ‘This is what I live for. “I live for these moments,” Auriemma said. “Every kid has this… fear of ‘What if I can’t?’ Anyone who tells you that it doesn’t exist (that fear) is lying. But the great ones, they put it in the back of their mind and just go and do what they do.”

(Photo by Paige Bueckers: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)