The UConn Huskies led UCF by five in the second round of the 2022 women's NCAA tournament, with less than 90 seconds to play, just six ticks remaining on the shot clock and the ball in Paige Bueckers' hands. The reigning national player of the year received a screen from teammate Dorka Juhász at the top of the arc and drove left, but a UCF defender blocked her path. Bueckers picked up her dribble, faked a pass to shake the defender and launched a 3-pointer.
On the next UConn possession, the Huskies now ahead by just three, the ball found its way to Bueckers again, near the same spot on the left wing. UCF's zone allowed her a decent look, so she hoisted another trey.
It rimmed out.
Christyn Williams and Azzi Fudd ultimately iced No. 2 seed UConn's 52-47 win on Monday, going 4-for-4 from the free throw line in the final 19 seconds to ensure the Huskies would play in a 28th straight Sweet 16. The finish reflected UConn's more balanced team this year -- the Huskies didn't need Bueckers' heroics to bail them out as they so often did last season when she produced arguably the greatest rookie campaign in the school's history. If anything, that emerged as the fatal flaw of last season's team, which lost to Arizona in the Final Four semifinals.
"Paige is another example that you're only as good as your teammates," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said at the time. "You're only as good as the team around you. You're going to have to have players who are that good, who rise above it. Arizona proved that for sure."
The Huskies are more multidimensional now, out of necessity once Bueckers went down with a knee injury that kept her out 19 games. Seven of their nine rotation players led the team in scoring in at least one game this season. And even once Bueckers returned, their play was so balanced the team adopted the motto "everybody eats." And it's a maxim the Huskies will need to continue to live by moving forward, starting with Saturday's regional semifinal against No. 3 seed Indiana (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"I don't expect Paige to play great," Auriemma said after the UCF game, not in the brightest of moods after his team allowed a 12-point lead with five minutes remaining to dwindle to three. "I think the expectation level for me is really, really low given how much time she sat out, given what she's coming off of."
As the past few weeks and two games in particular have shown, the version of Bueckers in this year's NCAA tournament isn't the same player who led the Huskies to a 13th consecutive Final Four last season. But even if she isn't transcendent, the Huskies can still make their way to Minneapolis in search of their first national championship since 2016. Because if everybody eats and certain players step up at the right time, this group of players still might end up going further than it ever did before.
When the NCAA tournament started, Auriemma admitted he still wasn't sure what Bueckers' role would be in March Madness. The Huskies had a 12-day break between winning the Big East tournament and the NCAA first round, but Bueckers had played just five games since returning from a surgically-repaired tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus.
"We have a pretty good situation going right now," Auriemma said, "so how much do we want to change that and what's best for our team and what's best for Paige."
After mostly coming off the bench and playing limited minutes since her return Feb. 25 versus St. John's, Bueckers was re-inserted into the starting lineup for UConn's first-round game. She played 24 minutes against Mercer and 32 on Monday versus UCF, the most she's seen since she was injured Dec. 5.
"I think just a whole lot of confidence and moving better and the preparation has helped me be better on the court," Bueckers said after the victory over Mercer.
Bueckers' shooting has remained efficient, but one of the most notable differences is that she's not taking over games offensively like she did before the injury. Through the first two rounds of the tournament, she's averaging roughly half the shot attempts (8.0) she took across the 2021 NCAA tournament (15.8). She hasn't taken more than nine in a game since her return; she put up at least 13 attempts in all five of UConn's tournament games a year ago.
That's not totally surprising given UConn has greater depth and scoring balance this season. Fudd, Bueckers' backcourt mate, attempted the most shots of any Husky against UCF (13), though nothing came easily against the Knights' suffocating defense. And even if she's not a higher volume shooter, that doesn't mean Bueckers can't be impactful. Against Mercer, the sophomore finished with 12 points on seven shots, to go along with five assists, four rebounds and two steals. Bueckers' court vision and ability to facilitate the offense still separate her from most others on the floor.
"There's still a lot going on out on the court that you can see that it's not the same player that we saw all of last year," Auriemma said. "But having her on the court, obviously, benefits us in so many ways. And the fact that I had her on the floor for 32 minutes [against UCF] says something, you know?"
To win its 12th NCAA title, UConn would have to win four more games, and Bueckers still might have a big night or hit big shots for the Huskies. Still, the thought of Bueckers putting up 22 shots -- like she did in UConn's narrow win over Baylor in the 2021 Elite Eight, or 26 in the Huskies' February 2021 regular-season overtime victory over South Carolina -- doesn't seem like a realistic expectation. And after being sidelined for three months, maybe it's unreasonable to expect her to replicate things she did not only pre-injury, but in historic fashion last season.
And that might be OK for the Huskies -- as long as others step up.
Fudd and Williams, who combined for over half of UConn's scoring against UCF, are the top candidates. Neither was the hallmark of efficiency on Monday -- Williams finished 3-for-9 from the field, Fudd 4-for-10 from 3 but 0-for-3 inside the arc -- but they made big plays at the end of the game when UConn needed them.
Williams had a strong postseason last year, stringing together three consecutive 20-point games from the Sweet 16 on. As a senior, she will likely be looked upon more than Fudd, a freshman in her first NCAA tournament, to get the Huskies' offense going. But don't count out Fudd, the No. 1 overall recruit from 2021. Upon returning from an 11-game absence due to a foot injury, the guard showed throughout the regular season that she can rise to the occasion, helping the Huskies surpass DePaul and Marquette in tight games, propelling them to a beatdown of Tennessee and spurring a comeback attempt in their loss to Villanova. If Fudd can play beyond her years moving forward, and especially keep hitting 3s, that'll take much of the pressure off Bueckers.
Any help redshirt senior guard Evina Westbrook or freshman guard Caroline Ducharme can provide would be beneficial, too. A big guard who can get to the rim with relative ease and knock down shots from deep, Ducharme led UConn in scoring (along with Williams) a team-high six times when Bueckers was out. But with Ducharme only seeing the floor for four minutes against UCF, it's unclear how Auriemma views her fitting into the equation going forward.
UConn's offense will need to remain balanced, not just in scoring distribution but in where and how it's scoring. The Huskies' three-big rotation (senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, sophomore Aaliyah Edwards and Juhász, a graduate transfer) hasn't been stellar to start the tournament, and was mostly missing in action offensively against UCF, scoring just 10 points in the paint against the Knights' physical post players. That trio will need to offer more productivity inside to take pressure off the guards.
Balanced attacks from Indiana and, should the Huskies advance, either NC State or Notre Dame, will challenge the Huskies. But UConn will continue to rely on its defense, which allows 53.4 points per game. The Huskies held Mercer scoreless in the third quarter and mostly stifled UCF, limiting the Knights to 18 points in 25 minutes from the second quarter through the middle of the fourth.
With and without Bueckers on the floor this season, UConn's offense has sputtered at times. But without Bueckers at 100% and unable to single-handedly take over games, the Huskies' margin of error gets slimmer. That's why their 2-for-12 effort on layups against UCF particularly hurt, in addition to hitting just 6-of-20 uncontested shots. It was eerily similar to how UConn went just 7-for-22 on layups against Arizona in the Final Four. While UConn escaped with a win over UCF in spite of those numbers, the Huskies might not be so fortunate against the likes of Indiana, which like UCF prides itself on stingy defense but isn't as physical as the Knights.
"We have to do better at finishing easy buckets. And also when we get a lead, we just have to keep our lead and not let the team come back," Williams said after the UCF win. "We have to sharpen up our defense and some things on offense, too. But the majority of it is finishing easy baskets."
Before Bueckers even arrived in Storrs in spring 2020, she faced lofty expectations that she could be the silver bullet propelling UConn to national championship glory again. Last season, she and the team around her weren't ready. This season, things went awry with injuries, illness and flat-out inconsistency.
Bueckers or no Bueckers, the Huskies have realized there is no silver bullet to winning championships. Through the adversity of losing Bueckers and seven others to injury or illness at some point this season, they had to learn how to win no matter who's on the floor. Now, without Bueckers at 100%, they have a shot on making true on that statement on the biggest of stages -- as long as everybody eats.