MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — At the tail end of the third quarter, Paige Bueckers picked up her first personal foul and plopped down on Connecticut’s bench for her only break of the night — a whole 53 seconds of game time.
The Huskies had to lean on their sophomore star as hard as they could against superior South Carolina on Sunday, and against any other team in the country she might have been enough.
But despite another all-out effort by Bueckers, UConn still came up well short — the first loss in program history in the title game — and fell 64-49 to the Gamecocks for the national championship.
“I don’t think from the beginning of the game our offense ever looked like it was in any kind of rhythm, any kind of flow,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “Then Paige tried to take it upon herself — that never works, when one person is trying to.”
Bueckers, playing just 10 miles from where she honed sharp-shooting, slick-passing and ace-ballhandling skills at Hopkins High School, finished with a team-leading 14 points on 6-for-13 shooting with six rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal.
“Now we know how to get here and how hard it is and how hard we have to work all throughout the season and how much we have to overcome,” Bueckers said at the interview podium afterward, her voice wavering and her eyes reddened.
After grinding through an unwelcomed midseason rehab following the left knee injury that cost her 19 games and hitting her stride in the NCAA Tournament, the 2021 AP National Player of the Year had 14 points and five assists in UConn’s semifinal victory over Stanford.
The Target Center lobby was packed two hours before tipoff, several rows deep on both sides of the red carpet rolled out for the players to stroll down upon their entry into the arena. Judging by the handheld signs from the adoring kids and teens, Bueckers was by far the VIP of the entourage, even with Auriemma and his 11 national championships.
The Gamecocks have one of the fiercest defenses in the game, and they promised to send multiple defenders at Bueckers to keep her from getting comfortable.
She never struggled, really, but she couldn’t find any kind of a rhythm, either, because of all the rebounds that were gobbled up by the Gamecocks and all the turnovers and misses by her teammates. The rest of the Huskies were 16 for 41 from the floor and totaled 14 turnovers.
Azzi Fudd had an illness that kept her away from the morning shootaround and had only three points in 17 minutes. Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who had four points and four fouls, played through a groin injury. South Carolina had a whopping 49-24 rebound advantage.
“We wanted to box out really well, push the ball in transition to get them running, get them tired,” Bueckers said. “But South Carolina is a great team. They had a great game.”
After South Carolina sprinted to a 13-2 lead, Bueckers didn’t get a shot off until a jumper that bounced off the back rim with 3:21 left in the first quarter — her only attempt of the opening period. She didn’t score until midway through the second quarter.
“We usually don’t have any problem getting Paige shots, but tonight it was a problem, and I think South Carolina had everything to do with that,” Auriemma said.
Brea Beal and Destanni Henderson spent most of the night guarding Bueckers. She tried to scrape off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities or find space for her favored pull-up jumpers, but there wasn’t much room in the half court for the Huskies to maneuver. All six of her makes were jump shots. She made one of three tries from 3-point range.
“I knew I had to use my speed and make sure I stayed with her,” Henderson said. “I think that’s what we’ve been practicing all along. The first time we played them, that really worked out well for us, so I knew I needed to come into this game and bring that same momentum.”
Bueckers had 19 points on 8-for-19 shooting on Nov. 22 in UConn’s 73-57 loss to South Carolina.
With the imposing Aliyah Boston, who succeeded Bueckers as the Player of the Year award winner, and her friends patrolling the paint, getting to the basket was tough for the Huskies — unless they found a backdoor pass from Bueckers to a cutting teammate.
As if that wasn’t enough, Bueckers also spent much of her night chasing around Henderson on the other end, as the Gamecocks senior went out on quite the high note with a career-high 26 points.
The Huskies lost to Arizona in the Final Four last year. Bueckers was denied the chance to play for a championship in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic that halted the Minnesota state high school tournament before Hopkins made it to the title game. Bueckers led the Royals to the 2019 title during her junior season, a few miles away at Williams Arena, but Hopkins lost in the 2018 championship at Target Center.
“Just being able to be here with my team and spend more time with each other, build more memories, and to do it at home was amazing,” Bueckers said. “Nobody in my position would be happy right now, so I’m obviously upset just with the way things ended. Super proud of this team for how far we’ve come and all the adversity we’ve dealt with and all we’ve overcome to get to this point. But at UConn, it’s national championship or nothing.”