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UConn’s Paige Bueckers finds a way to be 100 percent when she has to be

Minnesotan had her best game since returning from a fractured knee in Monday’s regional final

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Bridgeport Regional-UConn vs NC State
Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers (5) drives with the ball against NC State forward Jada Boyd in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament Monday, March 28, in Bridgeport, Conn.
David Butler II / USA Today Sports
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Paige Bueckers is back, and if the Connecticut guard isn’t at 100 percent, well, her coach Geno Auriemma had something to say about that on Tuesday.

“Some people at 90 percent look better than some people at 100 percent,” the longtime Huskies coach said. “So, it’s all relative, right?”

Sidelined for 19 games by a fractured left knee during a 73-54 victory over Notre Dame on Dec. 5, Bueckers has slowly returned to form over the past nine games. She scored a game-high 27 points in the Huskies’ 91-87, double-overtime victory over top-seeded N.C. State in the Bridgeport, Conn., regional final on Monday night.

It was Bueckers’ best game since returning for a 93-38 victory over St. John’s on Feb. 25.

“I wasn’t sure whether she was ever going to be able to play at this level this year,” Auriemma said.

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The victory lifted the second-seeded Huskies (29-5) into the Final Four for the 14th straight time. They meet Stanford (32-3) for a 6 p.m. tip in the first of two national semifinals Friday at Target Center.

South Carolina (33-2) and Louisville (29-4) will tip off at approximately 8:30 p.m. in the other semifinal.

Bueckers scored 15 points in the second half of the regional final, missing only one shot from the field, to keep UConn a half-step ahead of third-ranked N.C. State. She made a big 3-pointer late, blocked a key shot down the stretch, hit on 4 of 4 free throws in the final seconds, and added six rebounds.

And yet Bueckers, her coach said, isn’t quite herself — even if it looked like she was on Monday.

“To the outside viewer, it may look like, ‘Well, that’s the same Paige that I remember,’ ” Auriemma said in a teleconference Tuesday. “Well, to us here every single day, maybe she is some days, maybe she’s not. But last night when she had to be, she was.”

Bueckers, the sophomore point guard who was the nation’s top recruit as a senior at Hopkins High School, will play in her second consecutive Final Four, this time at home in Minnesota.

“Two days ago, I said, ‘Win or go home,’ ” Bueckers told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after Monday’s game. “Well, we won and I’m going home anyway.”

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Bridgeport Regional-UConn vs NC State
UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) shoots against NC State Wolfpack forward Jakia Brown-Turner (11) during overtime in the Bridgeport regional finals of the women's college basketball NCAA Tournament on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
David Butler II / USA Today Sports

Bueckers is still tied for the team scoring lead with Cristyn Williams (14.7 ppg) but was averaging 21.1 when she was injured taking the ball up court in the closing seconds against the Irish. She had surgery to repair the fracture on Dec. 13 and will have a relatively short turnaround on the biggest game of the season, three days’ rest including travel.

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While her minutes have gone up substantially in the NCAA tournament — she played 45 minutes on Monday after managing only nine in a 70-40 victory over Villanova on March 7 — Auriemma isn’t assuming Bueckers will be hearty and hale on Friday.

Even if she thinks she will be. Auriemma pointed out Tuesday that Bueckers missed most of last offseason after having surgery to repair an ankle injury left over from her high school days.

“She just happens to do things that are difficult to explain,” Auriemma said. “Now, I go by what she tells me and how she feels and what I see. So, if I see that it looks good, I go with it. If I see that she’s struggling, I take her out. That’s the way we’re going to operate this weekend.”

Bueckers played at Hopkins as an eighth-grader and helped the team advance to three Class 4A championship games, winning it all in an undefeated season as a junior. The Royals advanced to the title game her senior year before it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last season, Bueckers led the Huskies in points (20.0), assists (4.9) and steals (2.3), and became the first freshman to earn the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year and USBWA Player of the Year.

So, yes, she’s always been a little different.

“You know, Paige is a normal kid. She’s no different than any other kid her age; she just happens to have tremendous talent,” Auriemma said. “But it takes time when you’ve been away for a while. Paige thinks she’s 100 percent. Paige thought she was 100 percent the day of the surgery. She thought, why can’t I practice when I get home? So, she’s not doing what a normal kid does.

“So I was wrong, she’s not a normal kid.”

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