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UConn's Paige Bueckers officially 'that player' to watch; Tennessee faces deciding SEC games

Cassandra Negley
·10 min read
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The UConn bias is real. Connecticut is a modern powerhouse that brings No. 1 high school recruits to campus and sends them off as No. 1 draft picks. There are Huskies all over WNBA rosters. They win, they dominate, they compete in the Final Four every ... single ... year.

The success drives more success. It drives more media coverage. It drives casual fans to tune in. It drives readers to click. This is the reality. And when freshman Paige Bueckers does what she did against No. 1-ranked South Carolina, who can blame the machine? She's a No. 1 recruit en route to the No. 1 WNBA draft pick. She's doing unprecedented things in a program that is unprecedented.

Sometimes — like when a 3-point toss at the shot clock lofts high above the glass and magically drops through the net — all you can do is sit back in your chair, wide-eyed, jaw dropped at what you just watched.

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That's when you knew it was all over, no matter what the score or clock read. Bueckers was a meteor entering the upper atmosphere late in the fourth quarter and overtime, getting hotter with every lift of her shooting hand. The Gamecocks had finally found their footing, turning a seven-point deficit into a four-point lead with 2:54 to go. But Bueckers drilled two difficult mid-range jumpers to tie it. She scored all nine of UConn's points in overtime and few of them were easy. UConn took the 63-59 win on her back and will likely return to its well-worn No. 1 AP ranking next week.

With 31 points, Bueckers became the first UConn player to string together three consecutive 30-point games. If you said, "wait, what?" welcome to the club. It's true. Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore — none of them did what Bueckers did by only her 14th game in a Huskies jersey. And three of those outings were against top-25 ranked teams.

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Straight bonkers. But don't tell that to Bueckers — she's not surprised.

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Two nights later she extended her streak of 20-plus point games to six in a win against Seton Hall. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma has prodded her in previous weeks to take shots herself instead of always dishing it out, and he cautioned after the Seton Hall game that the cast around her is different than that of previous stars. She's working with less around her than players like Taurasi, Moore and Stewart did when they arrived.

Either way it's cut, she lit up the Twitter timeline for passionate fans and casual sports followers alike on Monday night. Every sport needs a player causal fans tune in to watch and Bueckers, already an accomplished Team USA youth star, is it.

"She's that player," Auriemma said after the South Carolina win. "She's that player that comes along that people talk about – 'Hey, did you see that kid from Connecticut?' She's that kid."

Connecticut (15-1, 12-0 Big East) plays Georgetown (1-9, 1-9 Big East) in a nationally televised game Friday night at 6 p.m. on CBS Sports Network. It likely won't be a competitive matchup with UConn holding a 46-6 mark in the all-time series, but watching Bueckers is always a treat. And if it gets out of hand quickly, early enrollee Saylor Poffenbarger might get some minutes.

Future is bright in UConn, South Carolina — and WNBA

Paige Bueckers in a shirt that reads

UConn guard Paige Bueckers is the player to watch in college basketball. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports via AP)

Bueckers got the crux of the attention after Monday night, but the game itself showed how bright the future is for these young stars gaining experience with the professional ranks still years away.

Gamecocks (15-2, 10-0 SEC) sophomore center Aliyah Boston has been on radars for a full year now and watching her go up against UConn freshman Aaliyah Edwards was fun stuff. Boston put up her eighth double-double of the season with 17 points and 15 rebounds. Edwards had eight and five, respectively, in 35 minutes off the bench. Their complimentary hair colors made it even better.

South Carolina guards Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson had 11 points each. And none of these stars could shine without the support of every teammate on the court and the bench. We'll let Auriemma take over here in a way only he can.

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We can only hope the championship is as competitive and tight as that gem of a game. South Carolina, which should only fall to No. 2 in the rankings if they get through the weekend, hosts Missouri on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network) and LSU on Sunday (12 p.m. ET, SECN).

Now on to three games to watch this weekend. No. 20 Tennessee has back-to-back ranked opponents as the Lady Vols jockey for top SEC positioning. The full schedule is here.

No. 16 Tennessee (12-3, 6-1 SEC) at No. 20 Kentucky (13-5, 6-4 SEC)

Thursday, 7 p.m. on SEC Network

TEAM CATCH UP: Tennessee is back to its regularly scheduled programming after a COVID-19 pause, its second such break of the season. It won three straight going into the six-day break, a streak that started with its 17-point victory over Kentucky at home. That win was one of three over ranked teams this season in an packed SEC that currently has six AP top-25 teams. Kentucky is coming off a bad loss to Ole Miss (8-7, 2-7) a week ago by a 72-60 score.

WHAT IT MEANS: Tennessee is one of three teams in the SEC with one or fewer losses, trailing South Carolina (10-0) and Texas A&M (9-1). Kentucky needs to break out of a three-way tie with LSU and Georgia. They all stand at 6-4 with Alabama at 5-5.

FIRST MEETING: Tennessee won, 70-53, the last time out against Kentucky. The Lady Vols nearly doubled Kentucky up on the boards, 56-25, with Rennia Davis hauling in 20 herself. The senior forward had a double-double with 15 points. Tennessee outscored Kentucky in the paint, 44-18.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Lady Vols are sharp shooters and lead the league in field goal percentage (48.6) and field goal percentage defense (36.5). Center Tamari Key averages 2.5 blocks per game, on par with South Carolina's Boston and Georgia's Jenna Staiti, and makes 69 percent of her shots. Junior guard Rae Burrell (16.9 PPG) and Davis (14.5 PPG) lead scoring.

Kentucky goes as Rhyne Howard goes. The national player of the year contender scored 26 points last week in the loss with 13 of them in the fourth quarter after a rough start. The 6-2 junior guard averages 19.7 a game, fourth best in the conference, while Chasity Patterson leads the SEC in steals per game at 3.5. The rest of Kentucky's roster needs to step up to contribute alongside them.

No. 21 Northwestern (11-3, 9-3 Big Ten) at No. 12 Ohio State (12-3, 6-3 Big Ten)

Sunday, 12:30 p.m. Big Ten Network

TEAM CATCH UP: Northwestern went into their Thursday contest against Rutgers on a three-game winning streak. Their most recent game was a 63-60 win over Michigan State last Sunday. Ohio State is coming in off a 75-70 upset loss at the hands of Wisconsin on Wednesday night.

WHAT IT MEANS: The top five schools in the Big Ten standings coming into the week were separated by two games or fewer. Northwestern and Ohio State are both locked into the bottom half of that section in the standings trailing Maryland (9-1 Big Ten), Indians (10-2) and Michigan (5-1). There are about five games remaining on the schedules.

FIRST MEETING: Northwestern's current win streak includes a 69-57 win over the Buckeyes on Feb. 1. Ohio State shot 28.6 percent and was in early foul trouble. The Wildcats were 42.4 percent from the floor and led by junior Veronica Burton (20P, 15R, 9A) and senior Lindsey Pulliam (15P, 10R).

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Pulliam and Ohio State junior Dorka Juhász, a 6-foot-4 forward, were both named to the midseason Naismith Trophy team released earlier this week. Pulliam's season-high on the boards was against the Buckeyes and she averages 16.6 points per game. Juhász had season-highs in free throw attempts (2-for-9), offensive rebounds (6) and steals (4) against Ohio State. The Hungarian national team member averages 15.3 points and 11.2 rebounds in 28.3 minutes per game.

No. 16 Tennessee (12-3, 6-1 SEC) at No. 6 Texas A&M (18-1, 9-1 SEC)

Sunday, 3 p.m. on ESPN

TEAM CATCH UP: Texas A&M last played Feb. 7 in another last-minute win over No. 18 Arkansas. Sophomore Jordan Nixon drove in for the winning layup with less than 10 seconds on the clock, the second time she's done so against the Razorbacks. They are 7-for-7 against ranked opponents this season.

WHAT IT MEANS: This is the only regular season meeting between Tennessee and Texas A&M and it will have large implications on the seeding for the SEC tournament slated to begin on March 3. Tennessee wants to jump Texas A&M in the standings for a No. 2 seed. The Aggies will come in off a seven-day break and need win to keep pace with undefeated South Carolina. The two match up in their only meeting on the final day of the regular season.

The series is nearly even at 7-6 in the Lady Vols favor. Tennessee won their last meeting, 73-71, one year ago.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Texas A&M senior forward N'dea Jones, named to the midseason Naismith Player of the Year list, is coming off two quiet scoring outings. Against LSU and Alabama she went a combined 2-for-10, but brought down 22 rebounds. But expect her to be a factor in both points and rebounds against Tennessee. She averages 12.6 points on 54.8 percent shooting and a team-best 10.8 rebounds per game.

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