SAN ANTONIO — In the NCAA Tournament River Walk Region final Monday night, UConn was down 10 against Baylor with two minutes left in the third quarter, nothing going its way and the Bears with all of the momentum.
Baylor was out-muscling, out-toughing UConn, the Huskies' youth showing on the Elite Eight national stage and making it appear that the program's 12-straight Final Four streak was minutes away from being broken.
And maybe it would have been — had UConn not had Paige Bueckers.
The freshman sensation had been clutch all season, had been steady all night. And as she'd done so many times before, she came through when her team needed her most, lifting UConn to a 69-67 victory, sending the Huskies to their 13th straight Final Four and earning the regional's Most Outstanding Player award in the process. They will face Arizona on Friday night. The Wildcats beat Indiana 66-53 in the late game Monday.
“We know she's going to knock down big shots, big 3s. And at that point in the game, we needed 3s to come back down by . It was just kind of an unsaid thing, 'all right we need 3s, let's go to our best 3-point shooter on the team.'”
Bueckers accounted for 10 of the team's 19 points in the game-deciding run that lasted from the final two minutes of the third quarter through the few minutes of the fourth.
UConn went over six minutes in the third quarter without a field goal, a scoreless run that Bueckers snapped with a jumper in the paint at the 1:48 mark of the period. That would kickstart a 19-0 UConn run that gave the Huskies a nine-point edge, an advantage the Huskies would not relinquish for the rest of the game.
Christyn Williams followed up Bueckers' shot with a 3-pointer, and Bueckers joined in on the fun with another trey with 59 seconds on the clock, cutting the deficit to two and giving UConn the momentum heading into the fourth.
"Paige making shots really ignited everyone else," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "That just got everybody feeling much better about themselves."
Bueckers wouldn't make the shot that secured UConn's lead for good — that would be fellow freshman Aaliyah Edwards, who cleaned up a Bueckers miss. But the freshman point guard made back-to-back shots after that, including another 3, that put UConn up 62-55 with 7:47 to play after hope had momentarily appeared lost.
Bueckers scored 10 of her 28 points in the third on 3-for-5 shooting (hitting her sole 3-point attempt and going 3-for-4 from the line). And that wasn't by accident: The Huskies knew that to erase Baylor's lead, they'd have to go through their best player.
"We know to be successful, there's certain people that have to score, and she's one of them," redshirt junior Evina Westbrook said. "We know she's going to knock down big shots, big 3s. And at that point in the game, we needed 3s to come back down by . It was just kind of an unsaid thing, 'all right we need 3s, let's go to our best 3-point shooter on the team.'
"Just getting her open, they go under a screen, she was able to knock it down like, 'okay, here she goes.' Then just continue to feed her, set screens, and just get her open. If she missed it, try to get the offensive rebound and then come down and get a defensive stop. That's what she does. She makes plays for us every game. She has been doing that throughout the season."
The freshman sensation would exit the Alamodome court the game's top scorer with 28 points on 10-for-22 shooting, including 3-for-7 on 3s and 5-for-6 from the free-throw line. What won't be evident from the box score is that Bueckers' buckets came at the most opportune of times, lifting her team from the precipice of losing out on a Final Four appearance.
"Paige does a lot of things that you can't explain," Auriemma said. "And believe me, there's a lot of things that Paige has got to learn to handle that she doesn't handle so great right now. But what Paige can do is Paige can sense the moment. Like all great players, she can sense the moment, when it's time, what's needed in that time, what's necessary. And she has the ability to fulfill that moment. Not everybody does."
It was just as, she described to reporters after the game, she envisioned doing one day when she was a kid shooting hoops at the park. Growing up, she also watched her favorite player — Husky alum Stefanie Dolson — hoist the trophy twice in 2013 and 2014, something she hopes to do Sunday.
"You never really know if you're going to get those chances and opportunities. And that's where God kicks in," Bueckers said. "These opportunities, you dream of them as a kid, but you can get there with strong work ethic and faith and just trust in God."
Not that Auriemma wasfullysatisfied with her performance.
"I think Coach is never satisfied with anything I do," Bueckers said. "Even after the game, he was yelling at me about not waiting for a screen on one of the last plays. We have two more games to go. Hopefully, on Friday we'll have that Final Four matchup and we want to win compete for the national championship."
And UConn may be able to do it on the shoulders of a 19-year-old kid from Minnesota once nicknamed Olive Oyl, who entered the season considering herself a pass-first point guard wanting to defer to her old teammates — but, regardless of how this weekend goes, will finish her freshman year already a legend in UConn lore.