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Bueckers returns home to Minnesota for Final Four, eyes national title with UConn

The former Hopkins High School legend is hoping to put on a show for her hometown fans.

HOPKINS, Minn. — Rahmeen Underwood will never forget the moment Paige Bueckers first strolled through the doors of Legacy Hoops Basketball Academy, years before she blossomed into one of the best college basketball players in America.

Underwood, a co-owner of the Twin Cities training program formerly known as 43 Hoops, had never seen a young basketball player compete with such discipline and concentration. 

"I just remember a kid that would come in with sweatpants, sneakers, a hat and hoodie, and all she would do is dribble. That's it. She just dribbled all day long," Underwood said. "To me, that's one of her greatest qualities as a basketball player. She's so focused."

The world witnessed those talents on Monday evening, when Bueckers calmly led Connecticut to an Elite Eight victory over top-seeded North Carolina State in double overtime. With her team's season on the line, the former Hopkins High School phenom scored 15 of her 27 points in the two overtime periods, showing no signs of the knee injury that sidelined her for much of the season. Swishing threes, knocking down mid-range jumpers, and converting free throws, Bueckers secured the Huskies a spot in the Final Four for the 14th straight season under head coach Geno Auriemma.

In Minneapolis, no less.

"The whole city is rooting for her," Underwood said. "She's kind of like our golden child here."

Bueckers, the reigning Associated Press Women's Player of the Year, arrives in her home state looking to redeem UConn for an upset loss in last year's national semifinals. 

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In Friday's semifinal nightcap at Target Center, the second-seeded Huskies will face the defending national champions, Stanford, for a chance to advance to the title game. Despite playing in a rare underdog role, Bueckers still faces undeniable pressure, as she looks to please not only her hometown fans in Minnesota but also those back in Connecticut — the most storied program in the sport. 

Bueckers didn't seem fazed at all, though, in a post-game interview Monday with ESPN's Holly Rowe. 

"Two days ago, I said 'win or go home,' but we won and I'm still going home. It's just crazy," Bueckers said. "I'm just so excited. No matter the location, no matter where it is, I get to keep playing with my team."

Tip-off Friday is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Central Time, following the first semifinal game between South Carolina and Louisville. 

"I just want Paige to know," Underwood said, "we all support her. We have her back. Win, lose, or draw, it doesn't even matter. Don't feel like you have to carry that pressure."

RELATED: Spotlight on Minneapolis as downtown preps for NCAA Women's Final Four

No matter what happens in the Final Four this weekend, Bueckers has already left an enormous impact on the next generation of basketball players in the state of Minnesota. 

Mikaelah Counce, a Champlin Park High School senior who has trained at Legacy Hoops Academy, remembers the excitement of crossing paths with Bueckers on the AAU circuit about five years ago. 

"She's kind of a hometown hero," Counce said. "Watching her play, doing all this crazy stuff, it keeps me motivated and inspired to continue playing myself."

Counce, like many other young players, considers Bueckers one of her top role models.

"I look up to her because she's very talented," Counce said, "and she's a really good person as well."

Demondi Johnson, another trainer at Legacy Hoops Academy and the girls' AAU basketball director, met Bueckers a few years ago while working in the Hopkins school district.

RELATED: NCAA Women's Final Four in Minneapolis: Fan events, experiences surrounding the tournament

"I think a lot of kids aspire to be like her, because of how she approaches the game," Johnson said. "To see someone from your area make it to the level she has, it gives a lot of kids the excitement to do the same."

As he watches Connecticut this weekend, Rahmeen Underwood will think back to his earliest interactions with Paige Bueckers at Legacy Hoops Academy, where she first honed her dribbling skills and other fundamentals. 

Even in recent years, Bueckers has returned to the facility to tutor young players at summer basketball camps. 

"She's just setting an example. She's somebody that the kids can see, can touch, can feel, can have a dialogue with," Underwood said. "I just hope she's enjoying the moment."

Bueckers isn't the only former Minnesota high school basketball standout returning home for the Women's Final Four. Two members of the UConn coaching staff are former Minnesotans: T'Aire Starks is a fellow former Hopkins High School basketball star who's served as a mentor to Bueckers; and Kiki Russell is a 2016 graduate of Osseo High School and Ms. Minnesota Basketball finalist who is now a graduate assistant for UConn.

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