Bridgeport, Conn. – She couldn’t miss. Almost like literally.
Every time the ball leaves her fingertips, move it around. one after one. All clutch shots, all essential, all carry the weight of the storied program’s expectations.
This season has been tough for the Paige Bakers, both physically and emotionally. But the Hopkins basketball wizard returned on Monday night.
The Bakers went to the phone booth and Paige’s “buckets” reappeared. Its legend has grown exponentially with a photography exhibition that will be revisited for many years.
“I would have liked to have watched that match. Obviously being in it was crazy.”
The Bueckers made eight consecutive shots after the break, scoring 10 points in overtime and five more in the second overtime, as UConn edged out North Carolina State at 91-87 in a 91-87 final regional thriller that featured more clutch shots than can remember him.
The result, in the opinion of UConn guard Kristen Williams, came down to one crucial factor:
“I was thinking, ‘We’ve got Paige Bakers and they’re not,'” she said.
Sometimes, it’s that simple.
The victory propelled UConn to their 14th consecutive final this weekend in Minneapolis, allowing the Bakers to experience a major homecoming. She put the entire UConn team on her back to make sure this happened.
The Bakers downplayed the personal importance of playing in her hometown’s largest sports theater before admitting that “coming home is great, too. I’m not going to lie.”
She refused to be denied the opportunity, finishing the game with 27 points in a 10 of 15 shot. She didn’t miss after the break until a jump was launched in the second half.
When the score was finally safe and the husky was able to exhale, the Bakers screamed, thrust her arms into hers and skipped the field. She hugged her classmates and danced and was soaked in the moment and what would happen next.
Knee surgery kept the Bakers away from 19 games and left them rusty when they returned. Coach Geno Auriemma has tried to manage expectations with his star back after a two-month hiatus, and no one is sure if she will be able to pick up the shape that made her National Player of the Year as a freshman.
Paige Bueckers appeared once again at the most pivotal moment of their season.
“I wasn’t expecting when this would come, the kind of moment she had,” Orima said. “Beige is different. I was made for these moments.”
Bueckers and her team had to work overtime to maintain the show’s Final Four streak. Teams traded big shot after big shot, and neither team wanted to end the season.
“This is one of the best matches I’ve been in since I was at UConn, regular season or post-season,” Auriemma said.
“I would have loved to watch that game,” Beckers added. “It was obviously crazy to be there.”
Every time huskies seemed to have things on hand, the Wolfpack had an answer.
North Carolina’s Jackia Brown-Turner drained a rainbow three-pointer from the deep angle one second before overtime to tie the score 77-77 and force a second overtime session. This came after the Bakers made two free throws 6 seconds before the end of the game.
North Carolina State, which has been trying to advance to its first four finals since 1998, will view the end of regulation with regret.
With a 61-61 draw, Yukon’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa missed two free throws with 28 seconds left.
North Carolina squandered its final possession. The Wolfpack waited too long to start their attack and settled on a hasty triple pointer by Kai Crutchfield that didn’t come close.
The Bakers caught fire in overtime sessions – and that was it.
“Once you make one, the rim is that big,” Williams said, extending her arms to form a big circle. “She’s going to keep making her, so give her the ball.”
Her teammates gave her the ball and she delivered it in the clutch. Very quiet, very cool.
“I was thinking, ‘We’ve got Paige Bueckers and they’re not.'”
Bueckers didn’t get a fairy tale goodbye in high school. The pandemic canceled both her state championship game and her dream of putting a celebratory arc on her illustrious middle school career.
Who knows, maybe you’ll get that fantasy ending after all.
After what happened Monday night, everything seems possible.