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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Perspective on this season will come for the UConn women ... eventually

    UConn guard Paige Bueckers, left, fights for a loose ball with Iowa guard Gabbie Marshall (24) during the first half of a Final Four college basketball game in the women's NCAA Tournament, Friday, April 5, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    Cleveland — Paige Bueckers was asked to provide perspective in the postgame press conference, something as the star of the UConn women’s basketball team she’s grown to handle exceptionally well.

    The more Bueckers spoke Friday night at Rocket Mortage FieldHouse following the Huskies’ gut-wrenching 71-69 loss to Iowa in the national semifinals, the more her fellow seniors, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl, wept.

    Edwards and Muhl leave UConn, while Bueckers will return. But the three, sitting on the interview dais along with head coach Geno Auriemma, have been together for four seasons, the first in the COVID-affected 2021 season and the last three in which the Huskies have been rattled by injuries.

    “The only thing you can really feel right now is the sting of the loss,” Bueckers said. “There’s going to be tears regardless at the end of the season just because it’s my last time playing with these guys.

    “It takes a while to process after the season, win or loss, the whole journey of it all. You just appreciate it as it goes along, just being on this team.”

    UConn, which finished 33-6, had a chance to win until the final possession. Down 70-69 and coming out of a timeout with 9.3 seconds remaining and the chance to run a game-winning play, the Huskies turned the ball over on what was whistled as an illegal screen on Edwards.

    UConn then fouled Iowa luminary Caitlin Clark with 3.1 seconds remaining. But when Clark missed the second free throw, the Huskies couldn’t secure the rebound.

    “We should’ve won the game but we didn’t deserve to win the game by the way we played the last couple possessions,” Auriemma said. “People say the little things matter. Well, you find out in life there’s no such thing as little things.”

    But back to Bueckers’ tear-inducing address.

    The Huskies lost six players to season-ending injuries, began the season 4-3 after losses to NC State, UCLA and Texas — already with three losses by Dec. 3 — and still made the Final Four.

    In the Portland regional, third-seeded UConn defeated No. 7 Duke 53-45 and top-seeded Southern California 80-73, getting 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks from Bueckers and a defensive gem from Muhl against USC freshman All-American JuJu Watkins.

    Muhl also defended Iowa’s Clark, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, holding her to 7-for-18 shooting, 3-for-11 from 3-point range for 21 points (she averages 32).

    UConn had Bueckers and Edwards named as Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association All-Americans on Thursday afternoon, meaning Edwards will be added to the Huskies of Honor (Bueckers earned that distinction once before in her career, as a freshman).

    “Everybody saw the heart, the joy, the passion that we played with,” Bueckers said. “We just love each other and we enjoy being around each other. This season meant everything to us, against all odds. Nobody thought we would be here.

    “All people posted about us was ‘the worst ranking in 20 years,’ ‘the worst start in 20 years,’ ‘the worst seeding in the tournament in 20 years.’ And here we are at the Final Four. It’s not the ending that we wanted ... but this is relationships and memories we’ll have for the rest of our life.”

    Auriemma said he wasn’t sure Bueckers was feeling quite herself in the game against Iowa, not moving around the court the way she usually does. She finished with 17 points, four rebounds and three assists, but no steals.

    “She definitely didn’t get the ball enough, definitely didn’t play the way she had played in the tournament leading up to today,” Auriemma said. “There was something bothering her. I think it was physical, but she wasn’t her aggressive self.”

    Auriemma said, in general, that he needs Bueckers to play more selfishly.

    “Paige is a patient person who waits and I think she is gonna learn that there’s no waiting at this time of the year,” said the Hall of Fame coach, who just completed his 39th season. “I know she wants to be the greatest teammate of all time, but I think those days are over.”

    Next year, the Huskies will have three former No. 1 high school recruits, as Sarah Strong, a 6-foot-2 forward from Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, committed Saturday to UConn. She will join Bueckers (No. 1 in 2020) and Azzi Fudd (No. 1 in 2021).

    UConn will have a full complement of 15 players, including Fudd, Jana El Alfy, Caroline Ducharme, Ayanna Patterson, Amari DeBerry and Aubrey Griffin, all of whom missed at least a portion of the season with injuries.

    Leaving are Edwards, who departs the Huskies with 1,861 points and 1,020 rebounds, and Muhl, the hard-nosed, all-time assists leader in the program with 686. They are eligible for the WNBA Draft on April 15.

    “Nika has an effect on every single person that she meets,” Auriemma said. “Her passion for life and just the way she embraces every challenge, every opportunity. ... Aaliyah, much quieter, much different personality. There’s more stoicism.

    “So they both accomplished the same things. They just go about it in two completely different ways.“

    The end came Friday before a crowd of 18,284, before a TV audience that peaked at 17 million, larger than any men’s or women’s basketball game in history, college or pro.

    UConn used just six players in the championship game, with Bueckers playing 40 minutes for the fourth straight game and Muhl playing for 39 minutes, 45 seconds (she left the game for 15 seconds in the third quarter after being injured).

    Auriemma worried that the end would come in an earlier round. But then presented with an opportunity to win ...

    “I’m proud of our team but I’m pissed we lost,” Auriemma said. “It just, it stings. It just sucks so much that you get this close and you don’t win. But I think they can hold their heads up and realize they accomplished something that was pretty amazing.

    “I think the rest of the country, everybody who tuned in, saw the way they competed.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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