BRIDGEPORT — While the UConn women’s basketball team’s NCAA Final Four appearance in Minneapolis will be a homecoming for Paige Bueckers, its trip to Minnesota is sure to bring back great memories for its coaching staff.
The national semifinal against Stanford Friday night will be the Huskies’ first game at the Target Center since April 2, 1995, when they defeated Tennessee for the program’s first national championship.
Second-seeded UConn advanced with a 91-87 double-overtime win over No. 1 North Carolina State in the Bridgeport Regional final before 10,119 at Total Mortgage Arena Monday night.
“I’m just glad that we get to go play,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s funny the last time we went there, it was the semifinals and we played Stanford.”
Friday night’s game will be played on the 27th anniversary of the Huskies’ 87-60 rout of the Cardinal. Kara Wolters led UConn with 31 points. Still, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer predicted a Tennessee win over the unbeaten Huskies the next day.
UConn won 70-64 to complete a perfect 35-0 season. Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey were in their 10th season with the Huskies. Current assistant coach Jamelle Elliott was a junior forward and was named to the all-Final Four team.
Auriemma has been in Minneapolis numerous times since including the times he recruited Bueckers, who grew up about 10 minutes from the Target Center.
The Target Center is the home of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves and the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx.
“I remember being at a game there,” Auriemma said. “I forget why we were there. I think it was a USA basketball thing. We all went up there together and I had a chance to watch (national team coach) Cheryl Reeve’s team. That was the one time I’ve been there. It will be interesting to walk into that building again.”
When he last left, he was carried off the floor by his players.
Bueckers was named the regional Most Outstanding Player — the second year in a row she’s been so honored. The sophomore guard averaged 21.0 points and 5.0 rebounds in the wins over Indiana and North Carolina State. She had 15 of UConn’s first 17 points of overtime.
“We found a way to win, we stuck together, and we stayed composed,” Bueckers said.
She is the sixth UConn player to be named a regional MOP multiple times. The others are Jennifer Rizzotti (1995-96), Diana Taurasi (2001, 2003-04), Maya Moore (2008-11), Breanna Stewart (2013, 2015-16), and Napheesa Collier (2017, 2019).
Her and Moore are the only Huskies to be chosen as a freshman and sophomore.
“You know, Paige is different,” Auriemma said. “Those players, if they were commonplace, we would know exactly who they are and we’d be able to rattle them off. But they’re not. They’re few and far in between. She was made for these moments.”
Teammates Christyn Williams and Azzi Fudd joined her on the all-regional team. Williams averaged 18.0 points and Fudd 16.0 points in the two games here.
Rounding out the all-regional team were North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane and Notre Dame’s Olivia Miles.
Nika Mühl played only 8:27 Monday and not a second of the overtimes. But what a difference she made.
The Huskies’ lead went from two to seven in the sophomore guard’s 5:17 of playing time in the second quarter that included an offensive rebound basket.
Then with 8:13 left in regulation and UConn down four, Mühl came in for Bueckers and contributed a steal and pass to Williams that gave the Huskies a short-lived edge. Bueckers returned with 5:30 to go with her team down one with the ball. The Big East Defensive Player of the Year got her final action in the last 27 seconds of regulation as UConn got the stop that sent the game to overtime.
“Nika’s contribution to this game was huge,” Williams said. “We were down and she came in and got a big stop, and I ran in transition and she assisted me the ball. That was a huge stop for us.”
Mühl’s minutes have taken a hit with Bueckers and Fudd playing at a high level, but she’s contributed at every opportunity.
“The coaches were clamoring, ‘You need to get her in there,’ ” Auriemma said. “It’s weird because usually when we need points, you don’t think of Nika. So we were down four, but we knew if we put her in things would automatically change. The whole environment out there would get amped up, because that is what she does. And she had a huge turnover she forced on a bucket we got.
“There’s just an infectious way she plays. She can play four minutes or 40 minutes and she impacts the game. That’s the best thing you can say about a player.”
UConn moved ahead of Tennessee in all-time NCAA tournament wins with its 129th Monday. The Huskies are 129-21 in 33 appearances while the Lady Vols are 128-32 in 40 appearances. … UConn did not cut down the nets following the regional win, a tradition it’s had since 2009. A fan, though, walked out of the arena with one of the nets around his neck. … The Huskies were 0-5 in NCAA tournament overtime games. North Carolina State will visit UConn during the 2022-23 season.
For coverage of all sports in the JI’s 18-town coverage area, plus updates on the UConn women’s basketball team and head coach Geno Auriemma, follow Carl Adamec on Twitter: @CarlAdamecFacebook: Carl Adamec, and Instagram: @CarlAdamec.