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    Sunday, September 24, 2023

    Now you see why Paige is all the rage at UConn

    Somewhere in Geno Auriemma's memoirs will come his hockey homage, where he explains how the offense he prefers to watch and coach mimics the old Edmonton Oilers.

    Gretzky. Kurri. Messier. Coffey. A free-flowing symphony, whose only reason to stop moving came when the referee pointed to the puck in the net, a rather counterproductive defensive strategy in the extreme.

    The UConn women have often hearkened the well-Oilered machine. Auriemma once joked that he almost forgot what his man-to-man offense looked like because opponents were too scared to play it.

    And then came Monday night at Gampel Pavilion, No. 1 vs. No. 2, and Auriemma's free-flowing offense hit an iceberg. Suddenly, aesthetics ran into a conga line of moving screens, missed layups, gut punches and passes into the third row.

    Ah, but then somewhere in the morass of all the wheels spinning and gears grinding, Wayne Gretzky Bueckers emerged.

    "Today, we were the Broad St. Bullies," Auriemma said after this inspiring 63-59 overtime win over not-No. 1-for-too-much-longer South Carolina. The coach alluded to his beloved Philadelphia Flyers of the 70s, who basically played by the ethos, "if you can't beat them, beat them up."

    "Today was dump it into the corner, four guys go in there, two get carried off, one guy has the puck and hopefully we score," he said. "You saw their size. We just don't have that. Sometimes you gotta win those kinds of games. It's easy to win when the games are free flowing. Back door passes are nice. Jump shooting contests. Tonight wasn't one of those games. You have to be able to win these."

    After the window dressing — some nice work from Nika Muhl, Aubrey Griffin and Aaliyah Edwards — the Huskies won because they had Bueckers and South Carolina didn't. She got 31 of her team's 63, despite drawing more attention than Tom Brady does from the media. Funny thing, though: Paige manages to play chess, while her opponents play ... Bueckers. To little avail. She scores anyway.

    Bueckers' most memorable shot from the night sealed the game. It was her only 3-pointer, a rainbow from straight away as the shot clock was about to expire. It left her hand and eventually hit the back iron, an attempt that often creates a lengthy carom. Instead, it bounced northward, as if hearing its muse from the heavens, and then dropped comfortably through the net. Oh, if only Gampel were full.

    "It's been a long time since a player's had to carry a team as much as she's had to," Auriemma said.

    And yet while the 3-pointer will become part of program lore and legend, Bueckers' true brilliance was on display during the other 28 points she scored. None of them came via the three-point shot. Bueckers has many endearing old-school traits, but none more than a respect for the mid-range game that the analytics crowd eschews.

    Loosely translated, the basketball eggheads say that the mid-range shot doesn't pass the risk/reward test. It's not worth forgoing the extra point available from the three-point shot. A layup/dunk has a lower degree of difficulty. So it's just not worth it. (Somehow, Sam Jones and Rip Hamilton endured.)

    Yet when the shot clock wanes to single digits, nobody's in the right place and panic replaces poise, layups and threes aren't necessarily as easy to find or take. This is where the mid-range jumper is easier to find than Bud in the bleachers. Bueckers, unlike kids her age obsessed with threes, has game that belies her age.

    "It's been difficult in some games to see where we can help her be better," Auriemma said. "I think the most important thing about Paige is that she plays at the same pace the entire game, a pace that allows her to use her skill. ... She can have the game slow down for her and make the plays that have to be made. She's that player that comes along that people talk about. 'Hey, did you see that kid from Connecticut?'"

    Later in the postgame Zoom, Auriemma said, "(Bueckers is) very slow. I say that with a high degree of appreciation. She takes her time. Like when Jim Brown used to run. She waits until the last minute and nothing rushes her."

    Lest you wondered South Carolina coach Dawn Staley's musings on this game, she contributed, "no excuses, but playing with Nike ball is a lot different than playing with the Wilson ball," and of Bueckers, she said succinctly, "She makes big shots when her number is called time and time again."

    Guessing Bueckers is going to get 30 most nights playing with the Nike ball, Wilson ball or Lucille Ball.

    "I marvel sometimes at how hard she had to work because of the defensive attention she gets every night," Auriemma said.

    The Huskies won with a style they're not used to Monday night. The Bullies replaced the Oilers, proving it doesn't have to be easy. It doesn't need to look gorgeous. And the legend of Paige Bueckers grows.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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