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COLUMN: No dream ending Sunday for Paige Bueckers

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four Championship
UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) controls the ball between South Carolina Gamecocks guard Bree Hall (23) and South Carolina Gamecocks forward Aliyah Boston (4) in the Final Four championship game of the women's college basketball NCAA Tournament on Sunday at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Krohn / USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — The dream ending for Paige Bueckers would’ve included a victory Sunday night in the national championship game at Target Center – just 10 minutes from where she grew up.

But Bueckers is a little too closely connected to Minnesota sports for a dream ending to come to fruition, so perhaps she was destined to taste defeat. Connecticut fell 64-49 to South Carolina in the title bout, with the Gamecocks earning their second NCAA championship.

And they did indeed earn it. South Carolina looked like the nation’s top team all season, and that was especially true this weekend in Minneapolis. The Gamecocks were too big, too physical and too athletic. They imposed their will on both ends of the floor, as great teams should.

It didn’t help UConn’s cause that the Huskies were undermanned with injuries and illness – starting freshman guard Azzi Fudd scored just three points in 16 minutes Sunday as she battled a reported stomach bug. Still, in general, the Huskies were simply overmatched. South Carolina out-rebounded UConn 49-24.

But the Huskies did have Bueckers, who’s the best player on the floor every time she steps onto it. That counted for something Sunday, as she played a large role in whatever offense the Huskies could muster – which wasn’t much against South Carolina’s suffocating defense.

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Bueckers, who suffered a knee injury late in Friday’s win over Stanford, and looked to be less than 100 percent Sunday, led the Huskies with 14 points, six rebounds and two assists while playing every minute but one.

Perhaps she should’ve been more aggressive in hunting her own shot – about the only criticism you find in the sophomore’s game. Much of that credit goes to South Carolina’s guards, who all were superb in hounding Bueckers, and all of UConn’s guards and wings, on nearly every possession.

Certainly, Bueckers will find ways in which she needs to be better in similar situations should they arise in the future, as they undoubtedly will.

Remember, Bueckers has been in this position before. She dropped three straight state title games while at Hopkins – finishing second in her eighth-grade, freshman and sophomore seasons. In the latter, she scored 37 points on 14-for-23 shooting for the Royals, yet it wasn’t enough as Hopkins fell to Eastview at, ironically, Target Center.

Then there was last year’s national semifinals, where UConn fell to Arizona. Sunday’s feeling isn’t foreign to her.

“I just want to win every single time I step on the floor, every single game. Any time you come up short, you try to learn as much from it and use it as lessons and just try to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Bueckers said Saturday. “But definitely losing on the biggest stages stinks the most, so just trying to watch film and do everything you can to make sure you don’t have that feeling again is how I use it.”

She’ll learn from Sunday’s loss in a similar fashion. She certainly wasn’t why the Huskies lost to South Carolina – the clearly superior team. Still, losses fall on everyone. The good news for the point guard is failure leads to growth

For example, after those three state title game losses, Bueckers returned to Williams Arena as a junior and helped Hopkins outscore Stillwater 47-16 in the second half of the state title game to win a championship – on a day in which she was severely ill, nonetheless.

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Similar results are likely on the horizon for Bueckers. She’s not someone who’s wise to bet against. She exits Minneapolis this weekend with everyone feeling what they felt when the point guard graduated from Hopkins — the best is surely yet to come.

No, there was no dream ending for the point guard on Sunday. But perhaps this one needed to be crushed, so others in the future can be realized.

“I think any time you lose, even in wins, you can learn a lot from it and watching film, breaking it down and making sure you’re focusing on little details,” Bueckers said Saturday. “I think you can get better from it.”

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