Why UConn women's basketball's Elite Eight win over NC State was 'euphoric': Voices from Bridgeport

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

The UConn women’s basketbal program's historic Final Four streak was on the line.

NC State was looking for its first trip to the national semifinals since last beating UConn in the Elite Eight 14 years prior.

There was a gruesome, stunning season-ending injury. Clutch plays were made, while game-beating buzzer shots were missed. Two wild overtimes. UConn was ranked No. 5 and NC State was No. 3, yet the game was played about two hours south of Storrs in Bridgeport's Total Mortgage Arena.

It was a matchup for the ages. An instant classic that set record viewership numbers.

Eight months later, UConn and NC State are staging rematch in Connecticut. This time it's at the XL Center in Hartford Sunday in an early-season meeting between two ranked teams.

The meeting is an opportunity to look back at the Elite Eight game through the eyes of some who experienced it courtside.

Let's hear the voices from Bridgeport.

What made it a classic?

UConn Sports 97.9 ESPN’s Bob Joyce: "It’s among my top five of all-time favorite broadcasts I’ve ever done involving UConn. It’s certainly classified as that with all the drama, with all the amazing plays that were made on both sides in that game. Geno (Auriemma) has always said the Elite Eight game is one of it, if not the, hardest games to win in the tournament because it gets you to the Final Four and well, that game certainly lived up to the billing for sure. … The passion that both teams had, the want, the drive were there."

SNY’s Maria Marino: "It was one of those games where you were sitting on the edge of your seat. It was probably the best game I have ever covered live. I just enjoyed it so much. You couldn’t help but smile in the aftermath of it. It was like a glow. It was like an afterglow coming off of the high of that game. … I was on a high. I felt like, 'This is better than having a substance.' Like this is life. ‘I’m high on life right now,’ is how I felt. I was just blown away. … It was one of those games where so many fans were on their feet because they were too antsy to sit down."

ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco: "I would say it was euphoric. It just felt like what makes sports so great. You have the incredible stakes, you have incredible teams and then you have these unexpected, unforgettable moments and that game was chalked full of them. … It was an incredible game. A forever game."

Former Husky and current SNY analyst Meg Culmo: "That game was one of the more exciting and dramatic games that I can ever remember because like just the drama, what it meant, the stakes were so high. Paige was back. Dorka got hurt. And in a way, it was almost improbable, but you just thought, ‘Oh my God. What more can this team go through this year?’ .... I mean it's really a sin that either team had to lose that game."

Heartbreaking injury

At the 6:20-minute mark in the second quarter, Dorka Juhász jumped up for a layup. The shot missed but when she came down from the jump, her legs got tangled in the defenders and she stuck out her hands to brace herself for the fall. Her left wrist immediately fractured on impact. Juhász missed the rest of the season after having surgery on March 30.

Joyce: "You knew it was bad because you could just hear the scream through the effects mic that something bad had happened. Given what happened last year, it didn’t surprise anyone, it just meant more adversity for this team. But I’ll give them a ton of credit because they could have rolled over and died when that happened. But they didn’t. The best part of the whole game was when the game was over, Dorka came out and the first person to hug her was Paige (Bueckers) and then everybody. It was a big collective group hug around Dorka saying, 'Hey, we did this for you.' "

Ruocco: "I think the thing I remember most is the reaction from the teammates of hers. And just seeing how upset they were. I think No. 1, how sorta horrified they were by the graphic nature of the injury, and then No. 2, just how badly they felt for her. I will always remember their reaction and just how upset they were."

Culmo: "I was heartbroken for her as a kid to get hurt in such a big moment and in such an awful way. I was heartbroken for her first and foremost. And then you think about the team implications. She's a critical player even though she's only been there a year at that point. And, and you couldn't help but think, 'Damn, they got another injury.' Like it was insane what they went through last year with all the different injuries and illnesses and players missing. You just went, 'No way. This can't be happening.'"

Return of 'vintage' Paige

This was Bueckers’ ninth game back after missing 19 during the middle of the season due to a knee injury. She returned on Feb. 25 and played 13 minutes against St. John’s. Bueckers made her return to the starting lineup two days later for a single game but didn’t play more than 20 minutes until nearly a month later in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Against NC State, Bueckers looked like her true self, scoring 15 of her 27 points after regulation.

Joyce: "Paige let the game come to her in the second half. Knocked down a couple of shots that got her going. And then the mid-range shots that both she and Azzi (Fudd) were able to hit were just mind-boggling at times. … We were looking to see, 'When are we gonna see vintage Paige come back?' We didn’t think she had found that just yet. That was the first game where we thought, 'Alright, this is vintage Paige at her absolute best.'"

Marino: "What I remember most hands down about the game is Paige Bueckers. I remember when UConn came out of halftime, and she just had that look in her eye and she was virtually unstoppable. Like every time down the floor, when the ball would get to her, you just had this feeling like she was gonna score and something amazing was gonna happen. … I was surprised in the sense that I knew she still wasn’t probably at the height of her powers as far as her health, but the intangibles of the clutch gene, like that sorta thing, compensated for any lack of physical health."

Ruocco: "You just saw her rise to the moment and own the clutch the way that she does. … I think it was surprising just because she really didn’t look like she was moving like herself in those other games. If you watched her in the Big East Tournament like she looked like a very far version of herself and her passing. Like you just didn’t know if she was physically capable of being in that place, in a moment like this, but one thing we know about that young woman is she is a total gamer. She’s got insatiable competitive spirit and I think we saw those things kinda guide her there. … Was I shocked? No, because I was like 'Dammit, that’s Paige Bueckers.' It’s what she does."

Culmo: "It was a huge sigh and a breath of relief like, 'OK, here she is. Like she is back.' And it was amazing that she was able to do that with so little game experience after that knee injury. That was remarkable to me that she was able to. That shows how special she is."

Double overtime stress

The teams were tied with 30 seconds left in regulation, yet neither could capitalize. Olivia Nelson-Ododa missed a pair of free throws and NC State’s Diamond Johnson missed a 3-pointer, forcing the game to go into overtime. The extra period was back and forth, including NC State’s Jakia Brown-Turner’s 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds left to force a second extra period. The game marked the first double overtime game in the women’s Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament.

Joyce: "After the second half, the margin really wasn’t that distant either way whether it be NC State with the lead or UConn that had a lead. So that makes it always a great game to begin with and then of course all the drama that we had in overtime. … It just had that making of, 'Uh oh these missed free throws are going to come back and bite them.' And fortunately, their defense stepped up, didn’t allow dribble penetration, forced up a really bad shot for a potential game-winner."

Marino: "When I saw the way Paige was playing, I thought that UConn had it in the bag. But credit to NC State that they forced not only the overtime but the double overtime. … They would not give up even with every blow that was dealt to them and mainly by Paige. They continued on, and they kept fighting."

Ruocco: "I don’t think I was surprised by the result just because what we have seen very consistently from UConn is they find ways to get themselves into the Final Four even when their team may not be the most talented or whatever it might be. They just find a way. … The 3 in the corner to tie from Jakia Brown-Turner, like even though obviously, NC State doesn’t end up winning the game if there was one moment that just felt so improbable it was that. The execution, the angle, the lack of space, even a lefty shooting from the right corner and right in front of her bench. Like I will just forever remember the feeling of 'Oh my gosh, she just did that.'"

Lingering emotion

Marino said she watched the game on replay days later. Joyce listened to his broadcast of the game during the summer to learn from his own recording. Roucoo said he re-watched highlights and drank a glass of champagne after the game once he was home to feed the energy buzz it had brought on.

Marino: "I couldn’t get enough. I couldn’t stop talking about it. I wanted to relive it in the days after and so many people were asking me about it. So many people were talking about it like it was a game that generated chatter that would not go away. … I love games like that. I love games that come down to the wire and both teams are making amazing plays and you just don’t know what’s gonna happen. Like those have got to be the best basketball games that you can get."

Ruocco: "You’re on this ridiculous high but you’re also exhausted. Doing games like that, it requires so much concentration, so much physically. It requires a lot of energy and it’s also just so fun you don’t want it to end. So, you’re spent at the end of it but it’s like you can’t go to bed. … I think you kinda feel an appreciation instantly for just how rare that was and how fun that was. And I just remember feeling all of that once the game was over."

Culmo: "There's a lot of emotions. I was so happy for this group because it had been such an arduous year to that point. And that's always the hardest game to get to the Final Four. So, I was really happy for Geno and the staff for all the work and the stress year-round but like last year was one of the most complicated seasons with all of the injuries and the craziness that went down, like I've never seen anything like it in the last 35 years. …  I was just so happy for them, for this group that they honestly, they defied all the negative things that happen to them throughout the year, which there were a lot, and they overcame so much. They stuck together. Like, that was a remarkable season."

The impact

According to ESPN, the game was the most-watched women’s Elite Eight matchup in 16 years after averaging 2.04 million viewers. It was the fifth-largest audience ever for a game in the women’s NCAA tournament on ESPN, excluding the Final Four.

On her drive home from Bridgeport, Marino heard a caller on a New York sports radio show talk about the game. It was the first time she’d ever heard a caller talk about women’s basketball on a New York sports radio show.

Marino: "When you have a game like this, it’s just awesome because you have so many more people united and discovering the respect that women’s basketball deserves. … This caller called Paige Bueckers, 'the DeRozan of college,' and said that she was 'silky smooth.' And I remember that so vividly … A game like that has power to capture the hearts and minds of people who maybe never knew or were ignorant to women’s sports before."

Maggie.Vanoni@hearstmediact.com  @maggie_vanoni