Paige Bueckers came home to win the NCAA title in Minneapolis

Minneapolis – When Big Bakers I entered the family ballroom at the UConn Hotel in Minneapolis, and headed straight for Tara Starks. The former AAU Bakers coach knew what was coming, and she turned when she jumped towards her, crashing into her side. It’s a traditional greeting for both, even if the Starks sometimes wish they weren’t.

“I always tell her, ‘My knees are bad. My back is bad.’ What’s wrong with you?” Starks said. “But she’s like the same kid I used to sit and talk to in 11th grade. She’s no different.”

The Bakers grew up in St. Louis Park, a suburb of West Minneapolis, 10 minutes from the Target Center, where the women’s fourth final will be held Friday. She played at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka. She won the state championship at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena — known in the Twin Cities as The Barn — and lost on goalpost. There’s even a Bueckers mural in the form of a Gatorade ad on the Mall of America.

Bueckers led the Mummy Mummy into the Final Four with a stunning performance in the thriller double-plus against NC State at Elite Eight. The sophomore earned 27 points and earned six rebounds in the 91-87 win that earned the Husky a 14th consecutive place in the Final Four. She did so while continuing to work on her way back from surgery to repair a tibial plateau fracture and a meniscus tear in her left knee.

“Our program is not going to win this game,” Ocon coach Gino Orima told reporters after the win over North Carolina State on Monday night. “Software can get you into this game, but someone has to be big. Without performing like this, there is no [Final Four]. “

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Nearly four months ago, it seemed doubtful that Bueckers – and UConn – would ever get here.

At the Gampel Pavilion on December 5, the Bakers dodged above ground with UConn up to 70-52 over Notre Dame. When she bounced the ball with her right hand and shuffled her feet to get a defender, she tripped. A few more steps later, the Bakers collapsed into a pile on the hardwood in front of the UConn bench 38.5 seconds before the game.

Bob Bakers, Paige’s father, finished watching the game on TV from his home in Maryland. Then he silenced his phone and lay sad.

“I had a terrible feeling for her,” Bob said. “All the work she did, and then just a weird little accident. And suddenly, she was hit.”

Beckers underwent surgery to repair her left knee on December 13th. That month was tough for the huskies. In addition to Bueckers, a freshman Azzi Fd The second year guard Nika Mohl They were outside with foot injuries. Transfer of Saylor Bufenbarger and Mer McClain. Ocon traveled to Atlanta and faced a stifling Georgia Tech defense, losing 57-44 in his first defeat to an unranked team in 239 games.

Fodd, one of the Bakers’ closest friends, knows what it was like to be sidelined for so long. She tore her ACL and MCL while playing against the Bakers during the 3v3 tournament in April 2019. Shortly after her return to the field, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and even as she was adjusting to some Al Ain University games, she injured her foot before reaching the Storers.

After the Husky family lost to Arizona in the Final Four last year, the Bakers underwent surgery on April 30 to repair an osteochondral defect in her right ankle. She spent the whole summer in boots, months before her knee injury in December. Fudd uniquely understands the frustrations her friend and teammate have endured.

“The most important thing at first was when it seemed like your world was over,” Fodd said. “She didn’t really know what was in store for her. But I was there to remind her of the little things, the little milestones to look forward to. And remind her that she’s still the Big Bakers, and keeps her spirits high.”

“It was really cool to have Azzi,” Beckers said. “It’s easy to talk to someone and they can say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ but they really have no idea. So having someone who knows exactly what you’re going through and someone who can help you mentally and physically was really important.”

The Bakers missed 19 games. In this stretch, UConn lost four. Her first match was on February 25 against St. John’s. She played 13 minutes and scored eight points in defeating the Huskies. In their first five games prior to the NCAA Championship, the Bakers averaged 6 points and 2.6 assists in 18.8 minutes per game. In the NCAA Championships, Bueckers averages 17.5 points and 2.5 assists in 33.75 minutes per game.

“It’s something only God can do, the things that this team has been through, the things that I’ve been through to be here in this position,” Beckers said. “It is not even possible without God and all the blessings He has bestowed upon us.”

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The Elite Eight proved that Bueckers, who was the first freshman to win the 2021 National Player of the Year award, can still take over the game.

“I said, ‘Win or go home,'” the Bakers said after the game. “We won, and I’m still going home.”

Bueckers never won a championship at Target Center. The last time she played as a sophomore was in March 2018, at the Minnesota State High School Championship. Bakers and Hopkins lost to Eastview by five points. The Bakers scored 37 points. This was Hopkins’ third consecutive state championship loss.

“[The team didn’t lose] “Three years in a row because of her lack of trying,” former Hopkins coach Brian Cosgrave said.

When the Bueckers finally got their first championship the following season, it was at The Barn. “I think there is a reason why I came here, why I had the opportunity again,” Beckers said. “It’s crazy what God does in your life.”

The Bakers’ influence on basketball in Minnesota reached its zenith in the mural that appeared at the Mall of America this week. Fans, especially younger fans, used to crowd her games at Hopkins, demanding photos and autographs.

When UConn takes the floor against Stanford on Friday night, the Bueckers will run out on the field that already has a piece of it. She’ll be looking to raise a trophy at Target Center for the first time with her Huskies teammates. She will be playing in front of her hometown audience – with her family and close friends watching.

“She deserves to be here at home,” Starks said. “She deserves to have the whole country behind her.”

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