There were 17 seconds left in the gold medal game against Australia at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand, and Team USA was trailing by two points when an intentional foul against Australia created an opportunity.

Coach Jeff Walz called a timeout before the final inbounds pass, and there was no question whose hands he was putting the ball in. Two seconds later, 17-year-old Paige Bueckers launched a pass to Hailey Van Lith at the opposite corner of the court, and she banked in a jump shot to send the game to overtime. Team USA went on to win gold with a 74-70 victory, and Bueckers was named the tournament MVP logging 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the championship game.

“Paige is so smooth and efficient at everything she does, and I still admire that about her game” said UCLA coach Cori Close, who was Walz’s assistant coach in Bangkok. “In the gold medal game, it wasn’t a matter of how we could get a quality person a good shot. It was who could make the right paths and decisions, and that was Paige … Her ability to see the floor, understand what the pass is going to be before it even happens, and then delivering on time, on target, it just elevates everybody around her.”

Sitting on the bench while Bueckers made the game-tying assist was fellow high school senior Caitlin Clark, then the No. 4 prospect in the Class of 2020 and still three months away from making her commitment to play for Lisa Bluder at Iowa. Clark didn’t start a single game at the World Cup and averaged 5.3 points and 1.6 assists in 14.8 minutes per game.

“I think Caitlin was really a shooter more or less and an occasional passer, but to see her now, she’s really such a complete point guard,” Close said. “I remember one year with USA Basketball she was just a really streaky shooter … I joked with her when she was out at UCLA for an ESPN award ceremony last year like ‘About time you learned to make free throws!’ I was giving her a hard time, but she’s become so efficient and so consistent. No one can say she’s streaky anymore.”

Bueckers was the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2020 and became the first freshman to win Naismith Player of the Year after leading UConn to the Final Four in 2021. On that NCAA Tournament run the Huskies routed Clark’s Hawkeyes, 92-72, in the second round and Bueckers logged 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, while Clark put up 21 points with five assists for Iowa. The Huskies also won a second meeting last season, 86-79, without Bueckers available.

But Clark has closed the gap in the last two years while Bueckers spent most of her time sidelined by injuries, first a tibial plateau fracture that kept her out of 19 games in 2021-22, then a season-ending ACL tear in August 2022. The Iowa star is now arguably the most famous women’s basketball player on earth and is poised to sweep the national player of the year awards for a second consecutive season. Averaging 32 points, 7.3 rebounds and nine assists in 2023-24, Clark broke Pete Maravich’s all-time NCAA scoring record on March 3 and now has 3,900 career points and counting.

The two will go head-to-head for the first time since their freshman year in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament in Cleveland on Friday night with a trip to the national championship game on the line.

“I think the coolest thing about Paige is how resilient she is,” Clark said. “Obviously she’s kind of been dealt a tough hand, but she only ever has positive things to say about her teammates. The way she carries herself on and off the court, the way she works hard, none of that has changed since I’ve known her since she was in middle school. She’s always been that same way and always had that fire. She’s always been a great leader, and I honestly couldn’t be happier for her and the year she’s had.”

Bueckers and Clark knew each other well even before playing for Team USA, both playing for top team on the midwest AAU circuit. They went head-to-head often at tournaments and showcases, but Close said there was never a competitive energy between the star point guards when they played for the national team.

“I know it would probably make a better story if I said yes, but no they were just really fun to be around,” Close said. “I think what I admire most about USA Basketball is that there very rarely is a competition. The pride of wearing USA Basketball across your chest and knowing that you’re representing something bigger than yourself, and a standard of excellence that you didn’t earn, there’s a humility that comes with that even for the Caitlin Clarks and Paige Bueckers.”

The 2019 U19 team was loaded with elite talent even beyond the usual level that Team USA attracts. The roster also featured Aliyah Boston and Rhyne Howard, the No. 1 overall picks in the last two WNBA drafts, plus 2024 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Cameron Brink. UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards played against that USA squad as a member of Team Canada and remembers feeling like they were going up against Goliath.

“Playing against Team USA, it was a lot,” Edwards said with a laugh. “As you can see today and into the W, there was a lot of dominant players stacked up on that team. It was a bit of an unfair advantage for us, because we had a bunch of little Bambis running around the court while you had like a (Los Angeles) Lakers championship team we were playing against.”

It’s no surprise to Close that Bueckers and Clark have leveraged their stardom to fuel unprecedented growth for women’s basketball. Iowa’s Elite Eight game against LSU averaged 12.3 million viewers on ESPN, making it the most-watched women’s basketball game of all time. The Huskies averaged 6.7 million in their win over USC, which was more than the UConn men recorded for their Elite Eight game against Illinois.

There were plenty of national team superstars before the duo arrived — the USA has won 10 gold medals across 15 U19 World Cups — but Close sees this group as uniquely equipped to capitalize on the power of the current spotlight.

“I think they’ve even superseded what we knew we had at that time,” Close said. “What makes them unique is that all of them have taken it on not only to grow themselves and their schools but the game. You look at the way they’ve invested in young kids, the way they’ve spoken out on key issues, the way they’ve been willing to sacrifice things personally for the sake of their teams or their communities. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a group … that went on to not only grow the game but effect cultural change.”

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