December 14, 2023 

Can Paige Bueckers evoke Diana Taurasi’s 2002-03 UConn season?

UConn's past offers clues about its immediate future

UNCASVILLE, CT — In the minutes following UConn’s 76–64 win over North Carolina — the nightcap of Sunday’s Hall of Fame Showcase triple-header — Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma reflected on the contributions of senior guard Paige Bueckers. Bueckers, who tallied 26 points, three steals and a career-high four blocks, propelled the team to a much-needed victory over a ranked Tar Heels squad.

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“I thought Paige today was a little more vocal, a little more forceful with what she wanted because she was more engaged defensively. She made some big plays defensively,” Auriemma said. “I would like to see her not have to get 25 or 30 every night, but the reality of the situation is sometimes that’s the way it’s going to have to be.”

With injuries keeping guards Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme and bigs Ayanna Patterson and Jana El Alfy sidelined, Bueckers has had to carry a lot more of the scoring load than expected. There is also additional pressure on UConn’s newcomers; freshmen Ashlynn Shade and KK Arnold both started for the Huskies on Sunday and are being asked to step into roles they didn’t expect at the start of the season. While Bueckers hasn’t looked herself at times this season as the Huskies’ new rotation gets ironed out, on Sunday she delivered a vintage performance, and her effort energized her teammates.

“We just all gained energy and passion through her passion,” said senior forward Aaliyah Edwards postgame.

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Been here before?

In thinking about the outsized role Bueckers will be asked to take on, Auriemma evoked the memory of a Diana Taurasi-led squad entering the 2002–03 season. Following the departure of Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams after a perfect, 39–0 national championship season in 2002, the weight of expectations surrounding the then three-time national champion UConn Huskies fell squarely on the shoulders of a plucky junior from Chino, California named Diana Taurasi.

To tip off the 2002–03 season, Taurasi was surrounded by inexperience and lack of depth. In the starting back court alongside Taurasi were junior Maria Conlon, a relatively inexperienced guard who averaged just 12.4 minutes across her first two seasons in Storrs, and Nicole Wolff, a freshman guard. In the post was 6’3 redshirt sophomore Jessica Moore and, on the wing, 6’2 freshman Ann Strother. When Wolff went down with a season-ending injury after just 10 games, she was replaced in the line-up by another freshman wing, 6′ Barbara Turner. Redshirt sophomore Ashley Battle and freshman Willnett Crockett came off the bench to round out a slim lineup for the Huskies. The Huskies largely played this seven-player rotation all season.

The Huskies weren’t picked as the favorites that 2002–03 season, with pollsters and fans expecting a rebuilding season as four freshmen were integrated into the lineup to replace a legendary senior class that included future Hall of Famers. While Taurasi was the team’s dominant scoring threat — averaging 17.9 ppg that season — freshman Strother and Turner both contributed double-digits scoring. Taurasi had a way of making those around her better, using her elite playmaking abilities and talent to lift up the whole team alongside her.

“Little by little they all started coming along and it made life easier for [Diana],” Auriemma said, reflecting on the ’02-’03 team.

UConn went undefeated during the 2002–03 regular season, stretching their win streak from the prior season to 70 consecutive wins. The Huskies would go on to eek out close wins over Texas in the national semifinal (71–69) and Tennessee in the final (73–68). Taurasi contributed 26 and 28 points respectively in those games and willed the team to a second consecutive title. Diana’s play brought the best out of her teammates, and that trait is what made her junior season so special.

“She elevates her teammates…She convinces them that they’re better than they’ve ever imagined to be,” Auriemma has said about Taurasi. “Even if she don’t like you. And that’s a real gift. To be able to make someone believe that you think they’re the greatest and that they need you and that you’re the key to winning championships.”

Looking ahead

Auriemma has compared the loss of key players on the roster to when “the puzzle that you were making doesn’t work anymore.”

Much like it did when Bird, Cash, Jones and Williams were lost to graduation, the UConn coaching staff will need to reassemble a winning puzzle with new and different pieces — this time due to injuries. Like Taurasi, Bueckers is the key piece of that puzzle around which the rest of the team must be constructed.

Fortunately, this coaching staff looks very much like it did during the Taurasi era, with the benefit of two decades of experience. In addition to Auriemma and longtime associate head coach Chris Dailey, assistants Jamelle Elliot and Tonya Cardoza were on the coaching staff in 2002–04, and have both made their way back to the UConn bench after gaining head coaching experience at Cincinnati and Temple, respectively. Morgan Valley, who graduated alongside Taurasi, is also now on the bench as an assistant coach.

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Beyond that, the pieces surrounding Bueckers aren’t unlike those that the coaching staff built around Taurasi during her junior season. Senior All-American Aaliyah Edwards brings consistency and aggressiveness to the post, the same way Jessica Moore did on the 2002–04 squads. Two-time BIG EAST Defensive Player of the year Nika Mühl adds a steady Maria Conlon-like presence at the guard position. Ashlynn Shade and KK Arnold are freshmen stepping into starting roles, much like Ann Strother and Barbara Turner. Aubrey Griffin has the potential to be a key spark off the bench, not unlike the role played by speedy, athletic wing Ashley Battle. And, if redshirt freshman Ice Brady can play up to her potential, she can add depth to the post position like Willnett Crockett did as a freshman.

Bueckers has shown she has the confidence and talent to elevate UConn to the highest heights. The two times UConn has had Bueckers in the lineup during the NCAA Tournament, they’ve advanced to the Final Four. During the 2020-21 season, Bueckers became the fifth freshman to score 100 points in a single women’s NCAA tournament, leading the Huskies to the national semifinal. After missing most of her sophomore season, a still-not-100% Bueckers returned in time to will her team to the national title game, delivering a truly classic Elite Eight performance against NC State to advance to the Final Four in her home state of Minnesota. She has demonstrated that she can carry the team on her back when needed.

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This season, after missing her entire junior season with an ACL tear, Bueckers must both deliver in the scoring column and help to elevate the play of her teammates. They build off of her confidence and leadership.

“I think right now we just have to go with what we’ve got and hope that every game we can get more contributions from more people. One of Paige’s strengths is making other players better. And right now, that’s not happening as much as I would like to see happen,” Auriemma said. “She’s making herself better, which is great, but there’s not enough flow in our offense because she can make plays for other people. And that’s not there. And I hope that we can get closer to that.”

During Diana Taurasi‘s junior and senior seasons of college, UConn’s go-to mantra was “We have Diana, and you don’t.”

Now, 20 years and several national championship banners later, Auriemma and his staff have Paige Bueckers, and the rest of the country does not. Time will tell how high Bueckers can elevate this season’s UConn team.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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