UConn-NC State Was An Instant Classic
10:12 AM EDT on March 29, 2022
Someone had to win this one, so Paige Bueckers decided the someone would be UConn. If you didn't know the sophomore had been relatively quiet (by her standards) since coming back from a knee injury that kept her out for most of the regular season, and relatively quiet (scoring-wise, anyway) in the first half of UConn's Elite Eight matchup against one-seed NC State on Monday night, you wouldn't have been able to tell from her sensational late-game takeover, which put the Huskies over the top in a 91-87 win.
UConn-NC State was the highlight of the tournament: a double-overtime adventure filled with long, tense scoreless stretches, quick shot-for-shot flurries, and clutch performances all around. "It's one of the best games I've ever been a part of since I've been at UConn, regular season, postseason, doesn't really matter," said Geno Auriemma. "Nobody wants to lose, and everybody is making big play after big play, and nobody backed down from the moment. It's a shame one of us had to lose, right? It would be great if both of us could go. But if there's two teams out there better than this one, holy moly."
When it felt like one team had the opportunity to pull ahead, to make the game less interesting, they could never really crack it open. NC State's post scorer Elissa Cunane struggled with UConn's defense early; she shot just 1-for-4 in the first quarter, but that only bought the Huskies a two-point lead entering the second. Then, when UConn looked ready to run away with it, less than halfway through the second quarter, their no-nonsense senior Dorka Juhász left the game with an ugly wrist injury, killing the crowd's energy. (Controversially, this was something of a road game for the top team in the Bridgeport region of the tournament bracket.) Even as UConn's bigs, one by one, found themselves in foul trouble in the second half, NC State had some trouble capitalizing on the advantage down low.
Instead, we got something more interesting, a game with 13 lead changes and plenty of ties. NC State smoothed out its wrinkles in the third quarter and finally got some shots to fall, even taking their first real lead early in the fourth quarter. Cunane found her groove. The stupid-good UConn freshman Azzi Fudd, defended admirably by Raina Perez, kept making what seemed like the toughest baskets in the world. There was no other way! We simply had to have more of this game! Overtime was the Paige Bueckers show; she scored 10 points in the first OT, including a pair of free throws to put UConn up three. Then, with six seconds left, Jakia Brown-Turner hit a game-tying three from a corner that had been kind to the Wolfpack all night.
Bueckers would answer with the first five UConn points in the second overtime. "Obviously I didn't do a good enough job getting us in a position to maybe slow her down," said NC State head coach Wes Moore. In the postgame presser, he admitted there were some possessions he'd like to do over, certainly to call a better play at the end of regulation. Curiously, he burned his final timeout on one of the last possessions of the second overtime, when Auriemma would have called a timeout to advance the ball anyway. At last, from a team whose bigs have often struggled to convert layups this season, came the final few UConn buckets to seal the win.
Stanford will present its challenges (i.e. they are tall as hell!) to the UConn frontcourt in the Final Four game on Friday. But knowing this team's backcourt for the next two years will feature a healthy Bueckers and a healthy Fudd, who also missed time due to injury this season, makes it difficult to imagine future opponents winning. Before the Elite Eight game, Bueckers revealed herself to be a hoops-obsessed sicko, eschewing all other television in favor of basketball. In the same press conference, she made an adorably corny remark: "Some people play the game, some people love the game, but I think I live the game." Fudd has said she has watched more basketball in the last year than she ever has before, thanks to Bueckers. So it's only fitting that the two produced their own instant classic. "I would have loved to have watched that game," Bueckers said.