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Final Four Feature: Paige Bueckers on cusp of restoring UConn intimidation factor

Paige Bueckers had the Jordanesque, Bryantesque killer instinct in the Elite Eight. Two more performances like that and her UConn Huskies will be champions and truly feared once again.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Bridgeport Regional-UConn vs NC State David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The debate continues. Is the 2021-22 version of UConn intimidating?

At times throughout their history, the Huskies have been intimidating to the utmost degree. Like the New York Yankees of the late 90s or the New England Patriots at times in the 2000s. Not only were they loaded with talent, but they had an aura surrounding them that they were just never going to blow it. That they would always win when they were favored. And they were always favored.

That's the UConn of Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart. From Taurasi’s sophomore year on, UConn had that aura and never lost when it was all on the line. The same was true from Stewart’s freshman year on. The one exception when it comes to those three players was Maya Moore’s senior year (2011), when an all-time great college player in Skylar Diggins (before the Smith) and her Notre Dame Fighting Irish had the upper hand in the national semifinals. Still, Moore walked away from an illustrious college career with two national championships, which came in back-to-back years.

But since 2016, UConn hasn’t won the title.

Oh, they’ve still been perpetual contender. Powerful enough to stretch their streak of consecutive Final Fours to 14 Monday night.

But they expect to win it all every year and have failed to reach the national championship game — a place where head coach Geno Auriemma is undefeated — four-straight times.

In 2017 and 2018, they only failed by the slimmest of margins. 2017 was the year after Stewart graduated and the team continued its undefeated streak anyway, going 36-0 before losing in the semifinals to Mississippi State on a Morgan William overtime buzzer-beater. 2018 was very similar, as the Huskies again starting 36-0 before Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale hit the semifinal game-winner with a second left in overtime.

In 2019, the Huskies lost to elite teams in Baylor and Louisville in the regular season. Nothing to be ashamed of. They then lost by five to Notre Dame in the semifinals. In 2020, the tournament was cancelled and UConn was ranked No. 5 in the final AP poll.

In 2021, they were stunned by eventual No. 4 seed Arkansas in the regular season and then lost to No. 3 seed Arizona by 10 in the semis. Was the aura starting to fade? Was the pressure to be UConn too much against Aari McDonald and the carefree Wildcats?

It is hard to judge the 2021-22 Huskies for their five losses as four of them came without the latest icon in UConn lore, sophomore Paige Bueckers, who missed time with an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear. The fifth came against national championship favorite South Carolina. But after last year’s loss to Arizona, there is pressure on Bueckers and the program to — in Bueckers’ remaining years — replicate what the Taurasi-, Moore- and Stewart-led teams accomplished: winning multiple titles.

She may need to bring a trophy back to Storrs to justify comparison to the greatest of the UConn greats, but, in the current moment, Bueckers is godlike, as her 8-of-9 effort from the field for 23 points after halftime on Monday added to her legacy in a major way. She showed no signs of being intimidated by the big moment. Perhaps a performance like that will inspire the Huskies to play exceptionally well against Stanford on Friday and then hoist the trophy after another win on Sunday.

Something that is for sure is that there is a reason UConn was No. 2 in the country to start the season, arguably a prohibitive favorite to win the title along with No. 1 South Carolina. The reason is that the team returned all its star players from a No. 1 seed, Final Four squad (Bueckers, Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards) and added No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit Azzi Fudd and talented Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhasz.

With Juhasz now out for the remainder of the season because of a fractured and dislocated wrist, UConn has lost some frontcourt depth. But because of all the other players mentioned above and freshman Caroline Ducharme, who has come on strong with 10.1 points per game, they are arguably the second-best remaining team on paper next to South Carolina. So, for the same reason they were No. 2 to start the season, DraftKings is giving them the second best odds to win it all (next to South Carolina).

Another thing is for sure. UConn has everybody on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Bueckers, as well as Williams and Fudd, who were also phenomenal on Monday and also have a lot of pressure on them, will rise to the occasion again on Friday.

Auriemma is competitive and wants to win. But he has 11 nattys, so the desire to win for his current players, none of whom have ever won national championship, is probably greater than his desire to win for himself. And he deserves credit for UConn playing loose and calm on Monday because of the way he cares about his players’ psyche.

“I try to use the success that we’ve had in the past not as like ‘this is the standard and you need to live up to it,’” Auriemma said after his team beat NC State in double overtime. “That’s grossly unfair to do that to anybody.

“But what I have done, including with this team, is tell them that this is what we have done. So going into this game, I was pretty honest with them, I said, this is what we usually do in a game like this at this time of the year. And here’s why we do it. Here’s why we’re able to do it. If you all didn’t have those same qualities in you, we wouldn’t be in this game.

“So when you’re playing in this game, it’s not just another group of kids playing in this game. It’s a game that everybody is watching us play goes, that’s Connecticut playing. So you didn’t create that, but that’s what follows you around, and you’re supposed to use that as an added incentive or as an added boost to where you’re going as opposed to a yoke that you’re dragging, the tradition that you’re dragging, having to live up to it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy being these kids with the pressures that they’re under.”