March 26, 2024 

Paige Bueckers is making up for lost time

‘We have the best player in America’

STORRS, Conn. — Shortly after the buzzer sounded on UConn’s second-round NCAA Tournament victory last season, then-junior guard Paige Bueckers could be found sitting quietly alone outside of Gampel Pavilion. For a high-caliber athlete who loves more than anything to play basketball, losing a season to an ACL tear was devastating.

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“I just remember last year after the Baylor game, it was a second-round game,” Bueckers said. “I just went to my car and I was so emotional because these high-stake games, these games that mean everything. I miss it so much and I just told myself before [this season’s] BIG EAST Tournament, before this tournament, just to embrace it and have fun. I prayed so hard a year ago today to be in my shoes where I’m at right now, so just to appreciate it, especially playing here in front of the best fans in the country with the best teammates and the best coaching staff in the world.”

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Postseason Bueckers has not disappointed. Following an inspired BIG EAST Tournament performance that earned the guard the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honors, she has dominated in the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds. Across both games, Bueckers averaged 30.0 points, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals per game.

“We have the best player in America, you know, just saying that because the numbers — in this world of analytics — the numbers say that she is and the whole stat sheet says that she is and everybody that watched knows it,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma.

Syracuse head coach Felisha Legette-Jack didn’t mince words when asked about the type of player Bueckers is.

“Paige was amazing her freshman year. You thought that was optimum of what you’re going to get from her. She’s way better. She’s way better. The game in her head is a chess match. You know, she attacked that middle. If nobody came, she knew how to float it. She knew how to kick it to either corner. Most guards either know how to pass down or out. She can pass it down or pitch it out. She can pitch it behind her.

“She’s just a seasoned vet. … I’ve seen a lot of great players come through this door. A lot. I’ve known Geno since I was a freshman at Syracuse University. Paige is one of the top three that ever came through those doors.”

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A different mentality

When the Huskies landed in Seattle for the 2023 Sweet 16, Auriemma could sense that his team didn’t have much left in the tank following first- and second-round wins. This season, as UConn returns to the Pacific Northwest as part of the Portland 3 Regional, the Hall of Fame coach can sense a bit of a different energy.

“When we went up to regionals [last year], we needed an easy game and we started off 10-0 and we relaxed because we didn’t have it in us to play a game like tonight,” Auriemma said. I think we’re a little bit different because we’ve played so many games like tonight where we’ve had to play like this that I think we have that build up, those reserves built up a little bit now. I just — and we didn’t have Paige. So, you know, the mentality of this team is way different. Yeah. Threw Paige into the mix.”

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Indeed, having Paige Bueckers in uniform instead of in sweats on the bench will be a major boost for UConn, a program that hopes to return to the Final Four after missing it last season for the first time in 15 years. That said, the road back to the sport’s final weekend isn’t easy. UConn has just eight active players, four of whom are first-year players. During Monday evening’s victory over Syracuse, UConn played with just a six-player rotation. Their regional includes No. 7 seed Duke, No. 5 seed Baylor and No. 1 seed USC.

A bright spot is that UConn freshmen KK Arnold and Ashlynn Shade have been performing at a level beyond their years, following the guidance of senior leaders Bueckers, Nika Mühl and Aaliyah Edwards. Shade, the BIG EAST Freshman of the Year, tallied 26 and 19 points, respectively, in UConn’s first- and second-round games on 50.0% shooting from beyond the arc. Arnold is UConn’s spark plug, and her corner 3 Monday was the dagger that won the game. Both players are peaking at the right moment for the Huskies.

“Yeah, they make winning plays,” Bueckers said about the team’s freshmen. “They’ve been doing this the entire year, and, again, we just try to instill confidence in them. It’s basically three seniors and all freshmen, so they have no choice but to step up to the plate and perform and contribute to winning and not be fazed by the stakes or the environment or anything like that — and they do it every time. So, I mean, extremely proud of them, they continue to perform and not play like freshmen.”

As the Huskies head into a truly astonishing 30th consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, the margin for error is razor-thin. March is an unforgiving time of year in college basketball, and the cards are stacked against this young UConn team that’s faced such significant injury loss. While there are many uncertainties awaiting the program in Portland, one thing has proved certain: When Paige is on the court, UConn always has a chance to win.

“This team will go as far as [Paige] is able to carry that kind of a load,” Auriemma said. “As long as she keeps getting a little bit of contributions from everybody.”

Up next for the Huskies is a Sweet 16 matchup against a defensive-minded Duke squad led by former Tennessee player Kara Lawson. The game tips off Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.

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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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