The Super Bowl and World Series Most Valuable Player award winners seem to end up at Disney.
With her MVP honor from the FIBA U-19 World Cup in tow, Paige Bueckers has her plan set for when she gets back home to Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
“I’m going to Chick-fil-A,” Bueckers said with a laugh while waiting at the airport to start her long return trip.
After a week of being hungry to help Team USA regain gold at the U-19 level, Chick-fil-A sounds like a dinner of champions.
Bueckers had 17 points, eight rebounds, and five assists Sunday and the UConn Class of 2020 commit became the second player connected to the Huskies to be U-19 MVP as Team USA held off Australia 74-70 in overtime in the final in Bangkok, Thailand.
“We didn’t play our A game,” Bueckers said. “But what makes a team special is how they handle adversity and how they respond to it. We knew that no matter what we had to do or go through, we were going to get that gold medal. We would find a way.”
The gold medal is Bueckers’ fourth playing for USA Basketball, adding to the ones she won at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, the 2018 FIBA U-17 World Cup, and the 2017 U-16 Americas Championship.
In seven games, the 5-foot-11 guard averaged 11.6 points (shooting 43.4 percent from the floor, 35.3 percent from three) and 4.1 rebounds. She ranked first in the tournament in assists (5.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio for those averaging at least 2.0 assists (2.4), while contributing 1.9 steals.
Breanna Stewart (2013) is the only other UConn-connected player to win U-19 MVP. After Bueckers received her award Sunday, she returned to the line with the five-player all-tournament team smiling and shaking her head as her teammates on the sidelines celebrated.
“I was pretty shocked,” Bueckers said. “I didn’t know I was going to get it and it still really hasn’t sunk in for me. It’s pretty crazy, I will say.
“It does make me feel good and it helps that I know my hard work getting here has paid off. But I know that I have a lot more to do because I want to keep getting better.”
Team USA, which settled for the silver medal two years ago, needed a game-closing 9-0 run to beat Belgium 67-59 in Saturday’s semifinals. It faced a tougher test Sunday.
Australia led 40-39 at the break. It was tied at 53 going to the fourth quarter but Australia regained the advantage and was up 64-59 with 2:43 left. Class of 2020 guard Hailey Van Lith answered for Team USA with a 3-pointer and a free throw but Agnes Emma-Nnopu’s hoop made it a three-point game with 51 seconds to go.
A turnover gave Australia possession but Australia’s Isobel Anstey was called for an unsportsmanlike foul for elbowing Kentucky sophomore Rhyne Howard in the face while trying to protect the ball. Class of 2020 guard Caitlin Clark made 1-of-2 free throws and on the ensuing possession Bueckers found Van Lith with a backdoor pass with 12.5 seconds remaining to tie it and force overtime.
Baskets by Van Lith and Howard gave the Americans the lead for good. Australia got it back to two but Stanford freshman Fran Belibi’s rebound hoop with 25.6 seconds left clinched it.
“In my times with USA Basketball this is the closest game that we’ve had,” Bueckers said. “As a competitor you just love being in that type of game, being in that situation. Sure you get nervous especially being that close with a gold medal on the line. But those moments are what you live for as a competitor. It was crazy out there.”
At the final buzzer, Bueckers and Van Lith hugged as their teammates rushed the floor.
“I’ll remember the relationships that I built with these players and with this coaching staff, and the excitement of winning a gold medal,” Bueckers said. “It was fun and a great experience.”
Van Lith finished with 16 points, while South Carolina freshman Aliyah Boston had a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds). Howard, who joined Bueckers on the all-tournament team, had 10 points. Team USA was coached by Louisville’s Jeff Walz.
Spain defeated Belgium 58-52 to take the bronze medal.