Bueckers is UConn’s leading scorer, but also now its leader
As a freshman, when UConn’s Paige Bueckers was carving her place as the consensus national player of the year in women’s basketball, all of her interviews were conducted as video conferences on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic changing the way things were conducted.
Then followed two seasons, one which barely got started and one which never did, in which Bueckers was sidelined with injuries.
Now, this was the grown-up version of Bueckers in the interview room Thursday night, in person, following No. 8 UConn’s decisive, 80-48 victory over No. 20 Maryland.
There’s still a lightness about Bueckers, a politeness from one of the game’s luminaries. But a seriousness too, as the Huskies (2-1) head to Minnesota for a 5 p.m. game Sunday (FS1), which will serve as Bueckers’ homecoming. Bueckers is a native of Hopkins, Minnesota.
And she’s no longer just UConn’s leading scorer. She’s the leader, too.
“I think discipline is the hugest thing,” Bueckers said of her reaction to the Huskies’ 92-81 loss at NC State last Sunday. “I thought I did a bad job leading last weekend in terms of the intensity we need to play with, the urgency we need to play with.
“You would think as a team, the stuff we’ve gone through the last couple years (in terms of injuries), that we’d never take a possession for granted and play every game like it’s our last because you never know when the game’s gonna get taken away from you.
“That’s sort of the mentality that we needed as a team and I don’t think I did a good job of voicing that and showing it myself.”
That wasn’t the case against Maryland. Bueckers set the precedent for UConn’s offense with 24 points and led the defense with six steals.
Without fellow star guard Azzi Fudd in the lineup due to injury, Bueckers took a shot to the right eye and lay on the floor for a bit pounding her fist on the hardwood as the sold-out Gampel Pavilion crowd grew silent.
After a brief trip to the bench, she went back out on the floor and lit a fire, enlisting three freshmen in a 24-4 run to end the second quarter.
Bueckers was everywhere. She was in every ear.
She held her teammates accountable. She held herself accountable.
“It makes you want to do it even more and be responsible for it because nobody listens to somebody who doesn’t do it themselves,” Bueckers said. “Just being able to hold myself accountable first.”
“I don’t care how many good players you have, there’s still a pecking order on your team,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “And I do think that there’s players on our team that they know what they’re good at but they need somebody to kind of light that fuse and feel like they can feed off of them and Paige became that today. She became that lightning rod that just started the whole thing.”
It all came after Bueckers got smacked in the eye. That was with 1 minute, 28 seconds left in the first quarter.
And it came after Bueckers was assessed an intentional foul with 4:58 to play in the half after becoming tangled up with Maryland’s Shyanne Sellers. Sellers connected on a pair of technical free throws to give the Terps a 25-22 lead.
Bueckers drew a laugh from the reporters in the room when asked about the beginnings of a black eye.
“I was pretty fired up,” Bueckers said. “I want it to look more black and blue so it can look how I felt.”
Bueckers, who leads UConn with 19.7 points per game, was the top-ranked recruit in the high school class of 2020, earning Gatorade National Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year and Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year honors as a senior.
That season she averaged 21.0 points, 9.2 assists, 5.2 steals and 5.1 rebounds per game, leading Hopkins High School to a 30-0 record and the Class AAAA state championship game, which was canceled due to COVID.
Bueckers now has the honor of playing at Minnesota’s Williams Arena, affectionately known as “The Barn,” a building steeped in history since its debut in 1928.
Bueckers’ family no longer lives in Minnesota, but she will have plenty of friends and family in attendance, in addition to opposing one of her best friends in fellow Hopkins grad and Minnesota sophomore guard Amaya Battle.
“It’s super surreal because I grew up going to games at ‘The Barn’ and watching the Gophers and watching the Lynx (of the WNBA) play there,” Bueckers said. “So to be playing there where I grew up, at my dream school, wearing a UConn uniform in that arena ...
“It’s like a surreal feeling for me. I’m super grateful for it, for UConn to be doing this for their seniors and giving them a homecoming game and of course I get to play against my little sister, Amaya Battle ... obviously she’s going to be the opponent.
“But super excited for the environment, the crowd and just experiencing that.”
Minnesota (3-0) is coming off a 75-53 win Wednesday over North Dakota State. The Golden Gophers are led by 6-foot sophomore guard Mara Braun with 21.0 points and 4.3 assists per game and by Battle with 11.3 points and 7.0 assists per game.
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