The No. 17 UConn Huskies found a 76-64 win over No. 24 North Carolina on Sunday, and Paige Bueckers achieved a historic milestone along the way.
Bueckers led UConn with 26 points while missing only three of her 14 shots. She reached 1,000 career points in what was her 55th game as a Husky, making her tied with Maya Moore for the fastest in program history to join the 1,000-point club. On the defensive end, Bueckers recorded a career-high four blocks and three steals in an effort coach Geno Auriemma had to be proud of.
"Maya is one of the G.O.A.T.S., so to be in that space is just amazing," Bueckers said after the game. "It's just a testament of all that my teammates have done for me, all that my coaches have done for me. I'm just a product of what they do for me. I'm extremely grateful, and it's an honor to be next to her."
UConn led North Carolina 19-10 after the first quarter, but by halftime the score was even at 36 points apiece. Bueckers was the star of the night, but one of the biggest differences in the second half was Aaliyah Edwards stepping up. Edwards only had four points over the first two quarters, but she scored 14 in the second half to go along with her 11 rebounds. Meanwhile, Nika Muhl contributed 12 points on four 3-pointers.
The Tar Heels were not an easy team to put away. The Huskies led by as many as 18 late in the third quarter, but North Carolina went on a 9-0 run in the middle of the fourth quarter while holding UConn scoreless for about six minutes. This cut the deficit to just eight points, but Edwards finally broke the UConn scoring drought with 2:30 remaining in the game.
This kind of second-half performance by Edwards is what Auriemma expects to see from his team's key players.
"Bueckers is trying really hard to make a lot of things happen, which I really, really love, but I would like to see a lot more activity from the rest of us," Auriemma said during the game.
Auriemma got his wish in the second half, and the Huskies improved their record to 6-3. They will be back to work next Saturday, when they'll take on another ranked opponent in No. 18 Louisville.
Here are some takeaways from UConn's win over North Carolina.
Bueckers' defense as impactful as her offense
While Bueckers' 1,000 career points milestone will draw the most attention, her defensive performance was equally strong, and it's one she willed into existence.
"I felt like I needed to have a huge defensive presence tonight ... play Paige Bueckers basketball, play UConn basketball," Bueckers said after the game.
Bueckers joked that perhaps the reason for her dominant showing was because she was wearing a shooting sleeve for the first time. But the real reason is probably that she has been slowly working herself back to the level she was at before the ACL injury that made her miss all of last season. Every game she plays more confidently, and it showed on both ends of the court Sunday.
UConn can't rely solely on Bueckers
As Auriemma has said multiple times this season, players not named Paige Bueckers need to contribute for the team to succeed. Edwards certainly did so in the second half, but Bueckers had to go 7 of 9 from the field over the first two quarters for her team to be tied at halftime. Muhl has also shown she can be an important contributor to the team as a valuable 3-point shooter, though she had six turnovers against North Carolina.
Muhl said after the game they probably played their best third quarter yet, as they outscored the Tar Heels 29-13 with minimal mistakes. Things could've been much different without the savvy second-half adjustments they made, as North Carolina is the same team that gave No. 1 South Carolina an upset scare last week.
After Azzi Fuddlate last month, the team was left with only Bueckers and Edwards as constant double-digit scorers. North Carolina did enter the game as one of the nation's top 50 defenses, but UConn struggled a lot more against Texas earlier this month. To compete against tougher defenses, Bueckers will certainly need to keep having solid games like this one, but also more Huskies are going to have to step up.
Edwards needs help down low
Despite her shooting struggles early against North Carolina, Edwards was a vital presence in the paint as she grabbed 11 rebounds in the win.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels out-rebounded the Huskies 43-33 and won the offensive rebounding battle 19-11. With a few more offensive boards from other Huskies, UConn could've potentially won by an even larger margin. Aubrey Griffin did step up and registered eight rebounds, a tick higher than the 6.6 boards she averages per game.
After the game, Bueckers said rebounding is one of the things Auriemma wants the team to work on.
"There was a huge emphasis in practice this week on making sure all five guys are rebounding and not leaving Aaliyah out to dry," Bueckers said.