Paige Bueckers might be a ‘pain in the neck’ but the UConn star also ‘shines a light on everywhere’

PORTLAND, Ore. — UConn women’s basketball associate head coach Chris Dailey forgot just how good Paige Bueckers was.

She was blown away, reminded of just how quick and efficient Bueckers is able to thread passes between defenders and how well she sees the floor.

What Dailey didn’t forget: “That she can also be a pain in the neck.”

Paige Bueckers, UConn women's basketball bold predictions for 2024 Final  Four

“When she came back, it makes you smile because she does love playing and she does bring that passion and all of that and she’s just really happy being back in that place,” said Dailey. She added later with a smile: “… She did not stop being a pain in the neck when she was injured. I can assure you of that.”

Bueckers spent all last season on the bench recovering from an ACL injury. She came to practices, staying on the sideline doing rehab. After missing nearly 20 games as a sophomore in 2021-22 due to a separate knee injury, many questioned the 2021 National Player of the Year’s return to the court.

But Bueckers has come back better than ever.

She’s averaging career-highs across the stat sheet and grown her game by playing in a power-forward position instead of her typical point guard role. She’s arguably the most efficient player in the country and again is a finalist for the National player of the Year awards.

And even more than what she’s done on the court, Bueckers has brought a new, refreshing since of joy to the UConn program as it’s battled a third-straight season of devastating injuries.

“Paige is a different star than maybe any that I’ve ever coached,” Huskies’ head coach Geno Auriemma said.

All her career, Bueckers has been a humble star. Her selflessness is what makes her such a good leader on and off the court.

She wants to win with all her teammates involved, often passing first before creating her own shot. She stays hours after games to sign autographs and meet with young fans. And during her 2021 ESPY acceptance speech (she was named the Best Women’s Sports College Athlete), she took the moment to recognize and honor the Black women who elevated the sport long before her career took off.

Bueckers knows she’s talented, but also knows her actions speak volumes for all those listening.

“She doesn’t show it. She doesn’t carry it around with her. She doesn’t talk about it,” Auriemma said. “Other players that I’ve had that were of that level, they walked around like they owned it. They talked like they owned it. They played like they owned it. I think Paige keeps it all inside and lets it come out when it needs to come out.”

No one knew how Bueckers would respond after two major knee injuries and missing so much time off the court. The year away from live basketball was hard on the Hopkins, Minnesota native. She tried to keep her feelings to herself, but those that know her well, knew it was eating at her.

“The one thing that Paige is very, very good at, which I think all great players and great leaders, they’re very, very great – they’re very, very good at hiding the things that will make them look like they’re struggling or suffering or they’re not confident anymore,” Auriemma said. “…. Paige would come to the practice facility every day last year to do her rehab and watch practice or whatever. And she was always the most upbeat, positive person in the gym.

“You knew that when she went home, she was a completely different person at home. You knew that it was killing her and tearing her apart. But great players like that, they carry a light around with them, you know? Because she’s a positive player that shines light on other people. We all know people that, they live in darkness, right? The minute they walk in a room, everybody just goes, ‘Ugh. They just suck the life out of the room.’ She’s the opposite. She shines light on everywhere she goes.”

Auriemma said the only time he physically saw the frustrations overwhelm Bueckers was when UConn played at longtime rival Tennessee last season.

“Privately, yes. It tore her apart,” he said. “… You come to UConn, you want to play in a Tennessee game, even though it’s not the same. It’s still UConn-Tennessee, and it’s at Tennessee. And I saw her break down in the locker room that game.”

Throw in the fact that UConn needed her in the post this year due to its lack of available experienced forwards and no one could have expected the season the redshirt junior has had.

She leads UConn with a career-high 21.9 points per game. She’s using her body to find her own shots while also becoming a defensive force. She’s No. 2 in the nation with 299 field goals made and leads the Huskies with 51 blocks this season. Bueckers’ 809 points this year is good for No. 2 in UConn’s top-10 single-season scoring list. Maya Moore is No. 1 with 868 in 2010-11.

“I’m not really surprised when the ball goes in the hoop for her,” Aaliyah Edwards said. “But some of the moves that she gets leading up to the bucket is pretty impressive. But that’s just how Paige plays basketball, and it’s beautiful to watch.”

A major part of Bueckers’ comeback has been her new dedication to proper recovery and treating her body appropriately to help prolong her future career. She announced in February that she will return to Storrs next season for a fifth year of college ball, despite being eligible for this year’s WNBA Draft.

“It’s a process. There’s a lot that goes into it. I don’t think people truly, truly understand how much work she’s done and continues to do to get her body right and just how much she’s grown in that area,” Dailey said. “So I appreciate all the hard work and her single mindedness to be able to get herself back to the point and to be better physically and mentally than where she was before. …

“When your body is really your tool of your trait, you have to really understand that, ‘I have to take care of myself.’ And hopefully the earlier kids can learn that, the easier will be for them.”

Bueckers will be one of the main focal points in Monday’s Elite Eight between the No. 3 seeded Huskies and No. 1 USC (9 p.m. ET on ESPN). The guard is expected to matchup against freshman sensation guard JuJu Watkins, who is No. 2 in the country with 27.0 points per game and 891 total points this season (Bueckers is No. 3 and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is No. 1 with 1,142).

Monday’s winner will advance to Friday’s Final Four in Cleveland.

“You know, players like her, the players in this tournament – you know, every player, but players like her, JuJu and Caitlin and Angel Reese, you can name them, (Kamilla) Cardoso and all those great players that South Carolina has, they live for these games, you know?

“Regular-season games are regular-season games. But these kids, this is what they dream of when they go to college and play basketball. And if their dream’s taken away from them, it’s like they’re half a person. And some people are just miserable and let it beat them. And some people, they don’t let that happen. And Paige is one of those people.”

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