SAN ANTONIO — Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark seem to be playing a personal game of horse on the national stage. After one delivers a highlight-filled performance, the other has a top-this moment.
The captivating basketball exploits by the heralded freshmen have created a buzz around the women’s NCAA Tournament, including one of event’s most anticipated matchups: Bueckers and Clark will play their first college game against each other in the Sweet 16 on Saturday in front of a national television audience.
“This was the potential matchup that raised eyebrows when the brackets came out,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said. “Fans have been having the debate all season long: who is the best freshman in the country. This game won’t decide that, but it will be highly entertaining for all basketball fans. We need Iowa and UConn to play each other the next three years!”
“It’s awesome, just for us to both be on the big stage,” said Bueckers, who had 24 points in UConn’s opening round win – the most ever by a Huskies player in an NCAA debut. “We haven’t really talked about it. I know my mentality is just focusing on one day at a time.”
The only downside to Saturday’s matchup is that it comes in the Sweet 16 and not the championship game, depriving fans of more top-this moments over the next couple of weeks in the Elite Eight and Final Four.
Clark led the nation in scoring and was second in assists for Iowa, while Bueckers helped UConn to the No. 1 ranking in the poll and became just the third freshman to earn first-team All-America honors.
“I love her game,” Bueckers said of Clark. “We’re really big fans of each other and I’m excited to play that game.”
Everyone seems to be falling in love with the games of both players.
Including Brooklyn Nets All-Star and NBA champion Kevin Durant.
Clark outscored Kentucky in the first half of Iowa’s second-round win on Tuesday with 24 of her 35 points. In a response to a comment about Clark’s game against the Wildcats, Durant posted on his Instagram account that “She belongs in the league right now.”
That won’t happen anytime soon for these two college standouts. Unlike the NBA, when players can turn pro after their freshman year, these young stars won’t be eligible to enter the WNBA draft for a few years because of league rules.
Not that either Bueckers or Clark are thinking about anything past Saturday.
“Going up against her would obviously be a great opportunity,” Clark said after the win against Kentucky. “Obviously a good friend of mine, a tremendous player. We would both say, we’re not going to win it alone, no matter who wins that game.”
The talented teenagers know each other well and don’t consider one another rivals. They started playing against each other in middle school in AAU tournaments and played together on USA Basketball’s Under-19 team in 2019.
“We played together and competed at the USA basketball trials and then obviously just seeing each other at tournaments a whole lot,” Bueckers said. “Minnesota and Iowa are really not that far apart so we saw each other at different AAU tournaments, so we kind of just built our relationship from there.”
Louisville coach Jeff Walz was the coach of that U-19 team and is excited to see the matchup – if his team isn’t playing at the same time.
“Caitlin and Paige are two great players who have a passion for the game,” he said, adding that he is “looking forward to them going head to head in the Sweet 16. It’s going to be a fun game to watch.”
Both players say this weekend is about their teams and not an individual matchup.
“I think me and Paige would give you the same answer,” Clark said. “It’s not Caitlin Clark versus Paige Bueckers, it’s Iowa versus UConn.”
That’s true, but most basketball fans are looking forward to Clark versus Bueckers.