Superstar freshmen Bueckers and Clark set to face off in Sweet 16
In a battle of All-Americans, the Elite 8 – and potentially, a national title – is on the line, when two of the biggest stars in women’s college basketball will match up for the first time in their collegiate careers Saturday.
Iowa's Caitlin Clark and Connecticut's Paige Bueckers – both freshman phenoms – have led their respective squads to the Sweet 16 after dominating the regular season and leading their teams through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday's matchup (1 p.m. ET, ABC) between the two superstars figures to be fascinating, but it won't be the first time the two will get to know each other on the floor.
AAU tournaments provided them an opportunity to compete dating back to middle school, and in 2019, they became teammates on USA Basketball’s Under-19 team.
But this weekend, they will be competitors in a face-off that has quite a few people buzzing.
Iowa has made it to the tournament for three consecutive seasons, but a loss to Baylor in the Elite Eight last season has the Hawkeyes still searching for their first Final Four appearance since 1993.
But the addition of Clark – the No. 4 ranked recruit coming out of high school this past season, according to ESPN – has made a potentially deep run all the more plausible.
Clark made waves in her NCAA Tournament debut against Central Michigan, registering 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
And in Iowa's second-round matchup with Kentucky, Clark had her 12th 30-point effort of the season, putting up 35 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
It was Clark's eighth consecutive game scoring 20+ points.
The native Iowan leads both the men’s and women’s NCAA Division I in scoring with an average of 26.8 points per game, including tournament games, and she is tied for the national lead in assists per game on the women's side (7.2).
While putting up such huge numbers during the tournament, Clark has attracted the attention of some big-name basketball stars.
But her counterpart – the No. 1 high school player in the nation coming into this season – is not to be outdone.
Bueckers also has put on a show during her freshman year, and she has the hardware and accolades to prove it.
Averaging 19.9 points and 5.8 assists per game, Bueckers was named an AP first-team All-American, 2021 Big East Player of the Year and Big East Freshman of the Year.
Maya Moore is the only other player to win both of those Big East honors in the same season and Bueckers is just the third freshman in history to be named to the AP first team.
"Paige Buckets" is also the first player in UConn women’s history to have three straight 30+ point games, impressive considering she is the 11th No. 1 overall recruit to sign with and attend UConn since 1998.
In her tournament debut against High Point, Bueckers had 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
The All-American guard then led the Huskies to a second-round victory against Syracuse, scoring 20 points and collecting four assists.
On the season, the top-seeded Huskies have the fourth best scoring offense in Division I, pouring in 82.8 points per game while allowing opponents to score just 50.7 points per game, which is second best in Division I women’s basketball.
The Huskies (26-1) generally dominate on the offensive side of the ball, leading all other teams in field-goal percentage and assists per game.
But they might meet their offensive match with the fifth-seeded Hawkeyes, who average 9.6 3-pointers per game while shooting 40.7% from beyond the arc.
Fortunately for the Huskies, coach Geno Auriemma will be available for the Sweet 16 game after missing the first two rounds due to COVID-19 protocols.
This is Auriemma’s 36th season as UConn head coach and he has led the Huskies to 11 national championships, 20 Final Fours and 51 conference championships.
On the opposing bench, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder has led the Hawkeyes to 14 NCAA postseason appearances and two conference championships while becoming the winningest coach in program history.
Both coaches have their work cut out for them as they prepare for a showdown between two phenoms who have helped put and keep their programs on the map this season.
In other words, fans won't want to miss this one.