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Apr 2, 2024 1:11 pm

UConn’s Paige Bueckers has habit of beating Iowa’s Caitlin Clark

Bueckers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Depending on the mathematics applied, Caitlin Clark is 0-3 head-to-head with UConn’s Paige Bueckers.

The story dates to when Geno Auriemma and the Huskies landed the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2020, a five-star point guard from Minnesota named Bueckers.

He admits there was never a scholarship offer extended to Clark.

Back then, Bueckers was the can’t-miss scorer who drew college coaches to her games in middle school because of her handles, athleticism and in-the-gym range. She was three spots ahead of a five-star guard from the state to the south, Des Moines, Iowa’s Clark.

“I loved UConn. I think they’re the coolest place on Earth, and I wanted to say I got recruited by them. They called my AAU coach a few times, but they never talked to my family and never talked to me,” Clark said of her interest in playing for the benchmark team of her youth, the Huskies.

Hardly overlooked, recruiting rankings primarily listed Clark fourth.

She was behind forward Angel Reese (the 2023-24 SEC Player of the Year at LSU) and forward Cameron Brink, who became the Pac-12 Player of the Year at Stanford.

Former Team USA backcourt mates, Bueckers was named Naismith Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year as a true freshman, when Clark led the nation in scoring at more than 26 points per game the same year.

That’s 2 for Bueckers, 0 for Clark.

And then they met on the court in the Sweet Sixteen at the end of the 2020-21 season, with Bueckers approaching a triple-double — 18 points, nine rebounds, eight assists — in a dominant win over Iowa. Clark had 21 points in the 92-72 defeat.

Since then, Clark is virtually undefeated in an unparalleled rise to becoming the face of college basketball.

She stole the spotlight, becoming a headline attraction with national appeal during the 2023 NCAA Tournament and her 2023-24 chase for college basketball’s scoring records. She added to those marks Monday with an array of near-midcourt 3s to amass 41 points and 12 assists in the regional final win over LSU, exacting a measure of revenge for the runner-up finish to the Tigers one year ago.

But Iowa claims not to be keeping score of past duels.

“Paige is playing really well. She’s a great player,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. “She was the national Player of the Year coming out of high school. Just a tremendous, tremendous player. We try not to make it be situations where it’s this person versus this person or this team versus this team. We just really try to focus on Iowa.

“That’s what we want to focus on. We don’t want to focus on rivalries or paybacks or anything like that. That’s just not us.”

Bueckers battled to stay on the court with multiple season-ending injuries threatening to derail her career.

“She’s a selfless human being,” Auriemma said of Bueckers after UConn cut down the nets as regional final champions on Monday night. “That automatically separates her from a whole bunch of other people. She takes care of her teammates better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Maybe there’s been others, of course. But the way she shares all her good fortune, all the good things that come to her, really don’t mean anything to her unless she can share them with her teammates, whatever it is.”

While Clark became the all-time leading scorer and two-time Player of the Year, Bueckers battled back to All-American status this season and has already committed to returning to UConn next season. Clark is on her way to the WNBA and all-but-certain No. 1 pick status.

First, they’ll put their talents on full display in the latest meeting of college basketball superheroes Friday night in Cleveland as No. 1 seed Iowa (33-4) faces No. 3 UConn (33-5).

It’s a return trip for Bueckers to the Final Four — her first came in 2021 — but Auriemma views the game as a destination in more ways than one.

“It’s pretty remarkable. Next weekend should be just as much fun as this weekend,” Auriemma said. “Yeah, I hope Caitlin Clark had a personal agenda against LSU. I know there’s nothing personal between me and her. I don’t need to be seeing her drop 50 on us next weekend, you know?

“I love her. I think she’s the best player. Forget I ever said Paige is the best player in the country. I think she’s the best player of all time. I don’t know whoever said that I said that Paige is the best player in the country.”

Bueckers earned the admiration of USC in a narrow victory Monday night and is averaging 28.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 3.3 steals in four 2024 NCAA Tournament games.

“I don’t know Paige personally, but to see that kid be out for two years and come back and do this,” Trojans coach Lindsay Gottlieb said with a disbelieving smile.

Bueckers said she plans to keep her focus on what she has, not what’s missing, as Auriemma pointed to a national title opportunity ahead.

“(Reaching the Final Four is) one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever felt in my life, just seeing where I was a year ago today, doing individual workouts, starting to feel the basketball again, get the ball in my hands again and play. Now I’m here with my teammates and coaching staff and going to the Final Four,” Bueckers said “It’s been a very rewarding journey. I’m super, super grateful for it all. The tough times made me who I am. It’s built my faith. It’s built my appreciation for life and gratitude for anything that gets thrown my way.”

–Field Level Media

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