After No. 1 UConn’s first-round drubbing of No. 16 High Point, associate coach Chris Dailey was asked if freshman phenom Paige Bueckers—who’d just posted the best tournament debut in the history of the program and made it look easy—was capable of shifting her game into another gear.
“Paige absolutely has another gear,” she said. “And the more physical the game—if she’s getting fouled—the higher that gear … When she gets to that spot, it’s tough to stop her.”
In the most punishingly physical game of the tournament so far—an instant classic down to its fraught final seconds—Bueckers tapped into that extra gear. She and UConn were pushed to their limits to defeat No. 2 Baylor in Monday’s Elite Eight showdown. But in a 19–0 run through the third and fourth quarters that saw the Huskies come back from their largest deficit to take one of their biggest leads of the night, Bueckers scored 10, and though it remained close, UConn never trailed again.
“Paige does a lot of things you can’t explain,” head coach Geno Auriemma said after the 69–67 win. “And believe me, there’s a lot of things that Paige’s got to learn 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 … And she has the ability to fill that moment. Not everybody does.”
In a game of runs—UConn had led by as many as 12 in the first half and Baylor led by as many as 10 in the second—Bueckers’s role in the big one for the Huskies did, in fact, come at the moment it was most needed. Baylor’s Didi Richards had gone down with what appeared to be a hamstring injury. On a team known for its tough, physical defense, the senior guard is the reigning defensive player of the year. Her presence had been key against UConn, as she was primarily responsible for guarding Bueckers. When Richards left the floor, a door cracked open for the Huskies, who found a way to rush in.
But the Lady Bears came close to clawing all the way back. The most memorable—and controversial—sequence of the game would not come until the final moments.
With UConn up by just one point with 18 seconds remaining, Huskies guard Christyn Williams went to the free-throw line with the potential to extend the lead to three. She missed both shots. Baylor took control of the ball with a chance to win—which ended with DiJonai Carrington driving to the basket with two defenders on her and forcing up an awkward shot with a few seconds left on the clock. Her attempt didn’t hit the rim. But she thought she had been fouled by the close play of the defense.
“I personally don’t see it as a controversial call,” said Carrington, who led Baylor in scoring with 22. “I’ve already seen the replay, and one girl fouled me in my face, and one girl fouled me on my arm. So at that point, you can’t do anything else.”
Her coach, Kim Mulkey, agreed. (“You don’t need a quote from me, I’ve got still shots and video from two angles. One kid hits her in the face and one kid had thrown the elbow.”) Auriemma dismissed that, pointing out that there are close calls and missed calls throughout any game, making note of the fact that Baylor shot 11 free throws in the first half compared to UConn’s two.
With a quick foul after Carrington’s missed jumper, Baylor had one last chance—inbounding with less than a second left in hopes of a catch-and-shoot. But Bueckers intercepted the inbound, putting an exclamation point on her highest-scoring game of the tournament so far, and the contest was over.
It was a game so tough that it was almost a shame it had to come in the Elite Eight, rather than in the Final Four, or even the national championship. (Had Baylor been able to play its full schedule, which it couldn’t due to COVID-19, it almost certainly would not have been seeded low enough for this matchup to happen so early.) These teams are frighteningly well-matched both currently and historically: Their all-time record against each other before tonight was 4–4, separated by just four points, with a much-anticipated ninth matchup that had been originally scheduled for January canceled due to COVID-19. Monday night’s game was both a continuation of that rich history and a thrilling new volume all its own.
That’s partially because of the physicality of this Baylor team; it’s one of the best rebounding squads in the country, and with its size, it’s rare for anyone to be able to beat it at its own game on the boards. But UConn came close, with 39 rebounds to Baylor’s 41. That made for a chippy, high-intensity game from the jump on Monday—which UConn felt particularly hard in the form of early foul trouble for Aaliyah Edwards, who had to sit out much of the second quarter, leaving them to struggle without one of their stronger defenders.
“Their talent, their aggressiveness, their length—it’s just very difficult. They don’t look like any team in the country,” said Auriemma. “They don’t play like any team in the country.”
But UConn doesn’t play quite like any team in the country, either. And with a 13th consecutive trip to the Final Four, they’ll keep on playing.