Paige Bueckers’ brilliant game sets up rematch vs. Caitlin Clark

PORTLAND, Ore. — Are you ready for Paige vs. Caitlin, Round 2? 

You better be. Because Friday at the Women’s Final Four, we’re getting that rematch after third-seeded UConn topped No. 1 USC 80-73 in the Portland 3 Regional final. It took 28 points from Paige (plus 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals) but the Huskies are still dancing. 

Her full name, of course, is Paige Bueckers. But like Caitlin Clark, she is so good, so famous and so transcendent beyond basketball that she goes by only one name. 

If only we all had that kind of star power. 

Two spectacular games Monday night showcased the sport everyone suddenly wants a piece of. These games, and these players, have ‘made everybody come into the 21st century,’ said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, a nod to the fact that women’s basketball has been good for a long time and it’s just taken awhile for people to realize it. He knows it helps, when you’re trying to grow the sport, to have All-American vs. All-American. 

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And now we get it again. 

UConn-Iowa comes, of course, after the other rematch everyone wanted, with LSU and Iowa meeting in another regional final one year after LSU topped the Hawkeyes in the national championship. Iowa won Round 2 of that heavyweight bout behind 41 points from Clark (a performance Auriemma would prefer she not replicate.) 

So thanks to Clark for doing her part and getting back to the Final Four, a feat few thought possible at the beginning of the season given all Iowa had lost. 

At least Clark has been talked about nonstop over the past year. Because if we’re being honest, doesn’t it seem like outside of Storrs, Connecticut, most people sort of … forgot about Bueckers?

It’s weird to say that about the player who, in 2021, won almost every national player award, took UConn to its 21st Final Four (they’re on their 23rd now) and served notice that the Huskies would absolutely get back to their national championship ways under her. 

During that run we got Paige vs. Caitlin, Round 1. Do you remember it? That’s when Clark was a freshman just starting to turn heads, and Bueckers was already the best player in the country after coming in as the most highly touted freshman. The first matchup went something like this: 21 points, three rebounds, five assists and five turnovers for Clark vs. 18 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and two turnovers for Bueckers. UConn won 92-72.

But that was three years ago, before Clark became Clark (aka the all-time leading scorer in college hoops, men or women) and Bueckers suffered through two season-ending injuries. She went a staggering 720 days between NCAA Tournament games. 

Bueckers has been honest about how hard it was to sit on the bench, and said earlier in the tournament that last postseason she sat in her car, overcome with emotion, desperate to play in big games again.  

Her tournament stats this time around are nothing short of sensational: Through four games she’s averaging 28.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 3.3 steals and shooting 51.5% from the field. 

‘I don’t know Paige personally, but to see that kid be out for two years and come back and do this …’ USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said afterward, trailing off and shaking her head in wonderment. Later she said Bueckers is hard to guard in part because of ‘the movement. (Geno’s) always done a phenomenal job, with all his great players, they’re on the move a lot, that’s a critical piece of it. And she’s got everything in her arsenal: She can shoot it, pass, she’s very fluid in transition … she’s a tough shot-maker.’ 

A year ago at this time, Bueckers was just getting back in the gym for one-on-one workouts and ‘feeling the ball in my hand again.’ It’s been a long journey, one she acknowledge was extremely trying mentally. She called Monday night ‘one of the most rewarding feelings of my life.’ In the last two years she learned to find ‘joy outside of the game, and in the process,’ choosing to look at the positives: Yes, she was hurt, but she got free surgery and free rehab and was around her favorite people. How many can say they’re that fortunate? 

It’s a startlingly mature take from a 22-year-old, one who Auriemma said ‘takes care of her teammates better than anyone I’ve ever seen.’ Earlier this week he said of Bueckers’ absence ‘you knew it was killing her and tearing her apart, but great players like that, they carry a light around with them. She shines a light on other people.’ 

And Monday, when the spotlight shone on her, it was Bueckers’ turn to radiate. 

Friday against an old foe in Clark and Iowa, she’ll have the chance to do it again. And no matter the outcome, that’s a victory for women’s basketball. 

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