April 2, 2024 

UConn seniors anchor the voyage to Cleveland

Huskies "miracle team" will face Iowa in national semis

PORTLAND, Ore. – Nika Muhl came to the scorer’s table to do her postgame radio interview after UConn’s 80-73 Elite Eight win over No. 1 seed USC at Moda Center. She took a moment to gather herself, bent at the waist to exhale a few times, wiping away tears before she donned the headphones.

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At the other end of the table, Aaliyah Edwards did her own media interview, a wide smile across her face, and pulling her new Final Four t-shirt over her braids. The moment she was done talking, she bounded over to the UConn band and cheerleaders.

Paige Bueckers was among the confetti, hugging teammates and cradling the Portland Regional trophy.

These three UConn seniors all wore their relief in their own way.

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For Bueckers, who went more than 700 days between participating in the NCAA Tournament due to the knee injury that cost her too much of her college career, she knows she will come back next season. That this game wouldn’t have been her last chance.

Muhl and Edwards know they will not.

So to earn this opportunity together, to return UConn to the Final Four, to see the quest for an elusive national title continue, was so clearly meaningful for the Huskies’ anchor trio.

“It felt different. I would say this group is very special,” Muhl said. “We overcame so much and learned from it, not just overcame it.”

“It’s one of the most rewarding days I’ve ever felt in my life,” Bueckers said.

“It’s just a great feeling,” Edwards said. “We’ve been through so much this year, last year. I think we really had to work hard for this win, and work hard for how far we’ve come. Obviously you guys see us, what we do on the court, but it’s really behind the scenes that we’re really, like, grinding it out. We had to go through a lot.”

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The Huskies’ seniors played with the appropriate amount of desperation and motivation in earning an opportunity to return to the Final Four for the 23rd time, where this rag-tag band of elite basketball talent will make a run at the program’s first national title since 2016.

Bueckers was never going to do this on her own, narratives be damned.

Not that she didn’t try with a 28-point, 10 rebound, six assist performance and barely outdueled USC freshman JuJu Watkins, who finished with 29 points on 9-for-25 shooting with 10 rebounds and two assists.

It was a master class in individual talent. And a showcase for the value of those who play beside you, no matter how talented you are.

April 1, 2024; Portland, Oregon, USA; in the first half in the Elite Eight at the 2024 NCAA Tournament at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Lydia Ely/The Next

Bueckers, the 2021 National Player of the Year as a freshman, got the help she needed from her two classmates, Edwards and Muhl. All three players were the only to play the entire 40 minutes. Edwards finished the game with 24 points (including a 10-for-14 night from the stripe) and six rebounds. She scored 17 of those in the second half in a game that was tied 33-33 at halftime.

Muhl picked up her fourth foul with 3:05 left in the third quarter. And the same player who fouled out against Syracuse in the second round, and said she felt like she let down the team, stayed on the floor. She would play the full game, contributing eight points, five rebounds and eight assists.

“I prayed,” Geno Auriemma said, choosing to leave her in the game.

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Defensively, the Huskies grinded against a bigger USC squad, holding the Trojans to 32.9 percent shooting from the floor and 9-for-29 from beyond the 3-point arc. The Huskies threw multiple defenders at Watkins, including Muhl, the two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

Bueckers returns to the Final Four stage in Cleveland, still in search of a title that shouldn’t define her greatness, but is the measuring stick she chooses for herself as well.

“The last couple years have been really challenging on me mentally, of me finding joy outside of the game, finding joy in the process, finding joy in trials and tribulations,” Bueckers said. “I feel like I’ve had adversity thrown my way, but at the same time I’m super blessed. ..Looking at the positives in life, what I do have, instead of focusing on what I don’t. Again, trying to be the best teammate I can be.

“Just seeing where I was a year ago, today, doing individual workouts, starting to feel the basketball again, get the ball in my hands again and play. Now I’m here with my teammates and coaching staff and going to the Final Four.”

Last year’s Sweet 16 exit taught the Huskies that nothing is a given, even when you wear UConn on your chest. And with two years of injuries and disappointment to draw from, the most atypical Huskies team in memory found its way back.

Auriemma’s “miracle” team, the one he’s bound together with duct tape and zip ties, the one that endured six season-ending injuries and a short bench through the bulk of the season, might have a couple more miracles to perform.

The coaching job he has done with this team, one that flew under radar for much of the season with the attention focused elsewhere, is one of his most impressive.

“There are times when you know that you’ve maxed out the abilities of your players. I’m a very realistic person. I don’t try to put unrealistic expectations on players,” Auriemma said. “When I watched them after what happened, I did think it would take a miracle. But we’ll get there next week and find out if it’s real.

“I think our entire coaching staff probably worked harder at keeping it together, not so much what offense, what defense, all that other stuff, just keeping the whole thing together, not letting us kind of get frayed by all the things that have happened.”

Auriemma paid tribute to his players in the locker room after the game.

“I told the players, it doesn’t matter whether this is the first time you’ve ever been to one, like some of the players in our locker room, or it’s for these three (seniors) where they’ve experienced this before, there’s something about when you reach this particular game and you win this particular game. It may even be more emotional than winning a national championship game sometimes ’cause you know how hard it was to get here.

“I’m so proud of them and their sense of belief in themselves never wavered, no matter what happened, no matter who we lost, one after another after another. They never gave up on their dream. Now here we are.”

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Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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