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Frederick: In UConn’s semifinal victory, Paige Bueckers again proves she’ll do whatever it takes to win

The Hopkins alum loves to pass. She lives to get her teammates involved and put them in the best possible position to shine. She believes her vision is a gift, and she craves the chance to utilize it.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Semifinal-Connecticut vs Stanford
UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) reacts on the court against the Stanford Cardinal during the second half on Friday in the Final Four semifinals of the women's college basketball NCAA Tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports
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It took about three minutes for Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma to shout out an impassioned plea to his best player in Friday’s national semifinal at Target Center.

“Shoot the … ball!” Auriemma screamed at Bueckers, including a few extra words that will not appear in this column.

The Huskies’ hall of fame coach knows what everyone else does, too — UConn’s best chance to lift the trophy at the end of this weekend likely includes as many Bueckers shot attempts as she can get.

And Bueckers complied with her coach — sort of. The point guard did indeed lead UConn in scoring — finishing with a team-high 14 points in the Huskies’ 63-58 win over Stanford to set up a titanic tilt with South Carolina on Sunday for the national title.

Fourteen may not sound like many, but in a defensive slugfest where every bucket felt like a legitimate game changer, points were at a premium.

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Bueckers seemed to score the big buckets, the ones UConn needed to shift momentum. That may not be enough volume to appease everyone – even Auriemma – but such is the game with Bueckers.

The Hopkins alum loves to pass. She lives to get her teammates involved and put them in the best possible position to shine. She believes her vision is a gift, and she craves the chance to utilize it.

Yes, she can enter “Paige Buckets” mode when necessary – she showed as much in the Huskies’ dramatic double overtime victory in the regional final, scoring 15 points in the extra sessions alone to lift UConn to victory.

But that mentality is not her default mode.

“I think she gets it. It’s always been a thing,” said Tara Starks, Bueckers’ long-time mentor and AAU coach. “She’s always been a kid that’s not going to take a bad shot and always wants to take the right shot.”

Sometimes, Starks noted, Bueckers has to realize that “your bad shot is better than anyone else’s right shot.”

“You’ve got to be willing to take those shots down the stretch of big games,” Starks said. “She’s always had it in her, but she’s always been so unselfish, she’s always been a team player, always wants to get other people involved and always wants her team to get as much recognition as she did.”

Bueckers aims to find the balance. She successfully did so Friday. In the second and third quarter, she hit a couple consecutive jumpers to create separation when needed. With UConn up six in the fourth, it was the guard who picked off a pass and took it the distance for the layup that truly put the Huskies in the driver’s seat down the stretch.

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And in between, when she wasn’t scoring, she was doing just about everything else. That included a strong defensive performance that included a pair of steals and a drawn charge, while holding Stanford’s Lexie Hull to 2 for 12 shooting. She stabilized UConn’s offense, finding her teammates for good looks on countless occasions – some fell, some didn’t.

There was a scary moment in the fourth quarter, when Bueckers’ leg got tangled up with those of a Stanford player on the defensive end. She briefly left the game, clutching her knee. Mind you, Bueckers missed a large chunk of the second half of the season with a knee injury.

“I’m OK,” she confirmed after the game.

She didn’t look comfortable down the stretch, but returned to action to help the Huskies close the door in the closing minutes. Down the stretch, Bueckers even grabbed a rebound that required a collision, which resulted in even more pain.

It didn’t stop her.

Whether it’s shooting, passing, or simply gutting an effort out, this is always true of Paige Bueckers – she’ll do what’s necessary to succeed,

“We’re just trying to win,” Bueckers said, “and whatever we need to do to keep winning, we’re going to do that.”

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Semifinal-Connecticut vs Stanford
UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) dribbles the ball as Stanford Cardinal forward Cameron Brink (22) during the first half on Friday in the Final Four semifinals of the women's college basketball NCAA Tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

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