How Paige Bueckers’ offensive game evolved throughout UConn women’s basketball season

The Huskies were not stacked with top scorers, but that’s who Bueckers was: a star player who wanted to win with all of her teammates involved.

Bueckers’ selflessness is what makes her so good. Her ability to see plays unfold moments before they actually do and to connect with her teammates before they even realize they’re open.

But UConn needed more from its point guard this season.

Paige Bueckers leads UConn women past Providence in Big East

And because Paige is Paige, she’s delivered and surpassed all expectations. She’s become the team’s top-scorer, its best play-maker and most efficient shooter. She still finds her teammates, but she’s hunted down and created her own looks more than ever before.

And Bueckers is doing it just a year removed from an ACL injury, while also out of her normal position as she now plays mostly forward.

“Paige doesn’t necessarily like to play this way, taking 25 shots,” Geno Auriemma said. “It’s against her personality, against her nature. But she can either be comfortable and do it her way and we lose or she can be uncomfortable and do what needs to be done and we win. So, if you want to win bad enough, that’s what you do.”

As UConn moves to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Saturday against Duke (8 p.m., ESPN), Bueckers has seemingly taken her game to another level out of necessity.

The biggest critique Bueckers received during her first year and-a-half at UConn (Bueckers missed 19 games as a sophomore due to a knee injury) was that she should “shoot more.” She was obviously an extremely talented passer and facilitator, but there was a hesitation when it came to taking her own shot. Not that she couldn’t make the shot — she could, but she’d pause right before she did, seeming to second-guess if there was anyone else better available.

UConn Women's Basketball on X: "Vintage Paige Bueckers - 29 points - 10-23  FG - 5-10 3FG - 9 rebounds - 6 assists - 3 blocks - 3 steals" / X

During moments on the bench, Auriemma could be seen yelling at his star pupil, asking why she didn’t take a specific shot and passed it off instead.

“Nothing could be worse than freshman year. You know, when you got to bench your best player because she won’t shoot,” Auriemma said. “That’s the problem that not very many coaches have. You bench your best player because they shoot too much and for her it was just the opposite.

And it just told me all I needed to know. That she is not interested in stats, she wants to win. And she wants to win with her teammates. She wants to win with them feeling like they were a big part of it.”

This year, Bueckers had no other option.

It didn’t matter that she missed all of last season due to an ACL injury. The Huskies needed more from her after losing top shooters Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme along with Aubrey Griffin to season-ending injuries.

But integrating Bueckers back into the lineup was challenging. Only a couple players had experience playing with Bueckers before and even that experience was two years ago. Not only did players have to adjust to her quick passes, but they had to learn to play with her instead of just sitting back and watching her do her thing.

Bueckers can easily drive into the lane and score. She knows how to score through contact and make free throws. She has an excellent pull-up jumper and an even better 3-point shot. But because of all that, she’s often the No. 1 target for defenses.

She gets double and triple teamed every game, getting whacked and hit constantly.

“This year, it started out ugly for her because she was scoring a lot but everybody was standing around watching her score,” Auriemma said. “And she didn’t know what to do about; ‘I’m trying to find my way. And you guys are trying to find your way with me.’ And it was a real (mess) that whole month in November.”

In UConn’s first seven games of the season, including UConn’s first three losses, Bueckers shot less than 40 percent in four games. Her shots rushed and contested. She was 3-of-9 in the season opener against Dayton and 4-of-12 during her homecoming game at Minnesota 10 days later. In UConn’s loss to UCLA, she had 31 points but was 9-of-23 from the floor. She shot even worse a week later in UConn’s loss at Texas, making only four shots out of 11 attempted.

It’s no coincidence UConn lost the games when she shot poorly. Auriemma called her out after the team’s loss to the Longhorns. Bueckers got lost trying to do too much. Her teammates were just as frustrated and stopped playing as a unit, failing to alleviate the pressure on her.

“I thought she was lousy today. Quite honestly, I thought she was bad, and I told her that,” Auriemma said after the loss in Austin. “You know, Paige isn’t good when she needs seven dribbles to get a shot off. Paige isn’t good when she’s got to take on guys one-against-two (or) one-against-three going in the lane. You know, forcing things, hoping to get to the free throw line. That’s not her game. That’s not who she is.”

Bueckers took the harsh critique and adapted.

She began to stop looking to pass first, instead focusing on getting to the hoop. She started taking more shots, but wasn’t rushed and she found a position in front of the arms of defenders. They were quick, smooth and open looks that she worked for without the ball.

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And it didn’t matter that Auriemma was forced to use her in a forward position. That only expanded Bueckers’ game. Her awareness on defense improved as she put herself in position to block shots, gather rebounds and then create offense.

In UConn’s 13 games between its loss at Texas and its loss to Notre Dame, Bueckers averaged 7.5 shots out of about 12 attempts per game. She shot less than 50 percent only twice while shooting above 70 percent in five games.

Bueckers’ worst shooting game of the year was also one of UConn’s worst losses of the season. She went 5-of-17 in an 83-67 loss to the Irish at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies looked out of sorts as Notre Dame took Bueckers and Nika Mühl (UConn’s best defender) out of the game.

“I think she would love nothing better than to have a full team of contributors so she can just have fun playing and not have to carry all that, but, you know, that’s the hand that she’s playing right now,” Auriemma said. “As I said, I have so much respect for her and what she’s doing, I can’t say enough things about her. Really, I can’t. There’s just too many things that she does.”

Paige Bueckers leads UConn women past Providence in Big East

After UConn’s 83-65 loss to South Carolina on Feb. 11, Gamecocks’ head coach Dawn Staley praised Bueckers while echoing Auriemma’s plea for her to shoot more. Bueckers led UConn with 20 points, shooting 8-of-20 from the floor with five rebounds and three assists.

“I love Paige’s game,” Staley said. “For me, I would like for her to take more shots. If I was Geno, I’d want her to take more shots because she doesn’t take bad shots. She’s got great court vision. She’s got great court awareness. Paige is gonna be an Olympian at some point too.”

Now in March, Bueckers is playing the best basketball of her career.

She averaged 27.6 points and a 53.2 field goal percentage across the Huskies’ three wins in the Big East Tournament. In UConn’s first two games of the NCAA Tournament, she’s totaled 60 points, going 25-of-44 from the floor.

And that’s just her scoring. She’s recorded double-doubles in three of the last five games, including a season-high 12 rebounds in the Big East Tournament semifinals. She’s averaged 5.2 assists, 3.2 steals and 2.8 blocks on top of just 1.6 turnovers per game in that stretch too.

“The really conscientious players, the great players that have so much confidence in themselves understand the difference between what I want and what our team needs,” Auriemma said. “This is the most shots this year probably that she’s taken and rightly so. She’s doing what we need her to do to win games and she doesn’t just indiscriminately come down here and chuck stuff up to get points. … This team will go as far as she’s able to carry that kind of a lead.”

In UConn’s NCAA Tournament second-round win over Syracuse, Bueckers scored a game-high 32 points for her NCAA Tournament career high and just two points shy of her regular-season career high. She shot 14-of-25 and recorded 10 rebounds, six assists, four steals and one block in 40 minutes. And when she got double-teamed during a crucial offensive play in the game’s final minute, she immediately threw a sharp pass to freshman KK Arnold for the game’s final dagger.

“Paige was amazing her freshman year,” Syracuse head coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. “You thought that was optimum of what you’re going to get from her. She’s way better.

The game in her head is a chess match. She attacked that middle. If nobody came, she knew how to float it. We came, 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. I mean, 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.”

Added Auriemma after the game: “She was getting 30 (points) in those (early season) games too, but they weren’t the right kind of 30. These are the right kind of 30s.”

Bueckers’ shot selection proves as such. She’s averaging 21.8 points per game, a 54.0 field goal percentage, a 41.8 3-point percentage and a 84.3 clip on free throws. She’s making more shots from all over the court and creating more looks for herself than ever before. Currently, she sits at No. 6 on UConn’s all-time single-season field goals made list with 290 this year. She needs just one more to pass Breanna Stewart (2013-14) for No. 5 and 21 more to jump into the top three. Maya Moore (2010-11) holds the No.1 spot at 333.

Heading into the Sweet 16, Bueckers is No. 4 in the nation with a career-high 290 field goals made and No. 15 with 537 attempted (another career-high). On the top-ranked field goal percentage list, Bueckers is the second-highest ranked guard with a 54% shooting clip. Yet, when that list is organized by shots attempted, she’s No.1 with the best made-out-of-attempted ratio of anyone in the country. For comparison: Iowa’s Caitlin Clark has a field goal percentage of 45.6, making 360 shots (No. 1 in the country) out of 789 attempts (also No. 1).

“We have the best player in America,” Auriemma said Monday. “Just saying that because the numbers in this world of analytics, the numbers say that she is. The whole stat sheet says that she is. And everybody that watched knows it.”

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