UConn’s Paige Bueckers carries daunting expectations into NCAA Tournament matchup vs. Syracuse

Paige Bueckers is averaging 21.8 points per game and earned First-Team All-American honors in her first season back from a torn ACL.

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Geno Auriemma sees an abundance of Breanna Stewart in Paige Bueckers. The quiet confidence. The efficiency. The utmost determination to succeed. The sheer impact on the game despite vastly disparate playstyles.

Paige Bueckers is averaging 21.8 points per game and earned First-Team All-American honors in her first season back from a torn ACL.

Passing the torch from one National Player of the Year to another hasn’t been uncommon in Auriemma’s 39-year reign filled with 11 national titles. Though, he insists Bueckers and Stewart share a special connection. He doesn’t even think his current star guard is very similar to Diana Taurasi, a former Huskies guard and the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

So, Auriemma has to get picky when pondering Bueckers’ differences with Stewart.

“I wish Paige was 6-foot-4 and had a 7-foot wingspan,” Auriemma said with a hint of sarcasm. “I wish she was built like Stewwy.”

Stewart’s extraordinary four-year run at UConn from 2012-16 — in which she spearheaded four consecutive national championship victories and garnered three Naismith Trophies — thrust Bueckers into an intimidating set of expectations. The ex-No. 1 recruit in the country from Edina, Minnesota, became Stewart’s heir apparent when she committed in 2019. But two major knee surgeries have hindered Bueckers’ succession.

She missed nearly three months in 2021-22 with a tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear in her left knee. Bueckers then tore her ACL on the same knee in August 2022 and missed all of 2022-23. Her return to the floor this season featured a First-Team All-American selection. And after a 720-day absence, Bueckers is back in the NCAA Tournament, where she bludgeoned Jackson State with 28 points in UConn’s first-round victory on March 23.

Even though the Huskies, a typical mainstay at No. 1, are only a No. 3 seed, Bueckers still feels the weight of national title demands. As a second-round bout versus Syracuse looms, Bueckers has just two postseasons left to fulfill her destiny as UConn’s next great champion — as unfair as it may seem.

“It’s been tough this whole season,” Bueckers said. “Because I have to keep in mind that it’s my first year back from injury. I have to keep in mind that nobody cares, and they have expectations already set from what I’ve shown in previous years.”

Paige Bueckers lets her emotions out during UConn’s win over Providence in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals on March 9. Photograph Courtesy of UConn Athletics

Following Bueckers’ explosive freshman season in 2020-21, where she won the Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award, her expectations have been rigorous. She spurred UConn to a Final Four appearance that year, averaging 20 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game.

Auriemma knew Bueckers was a celebrity from the moment she stepped foot on campus. He said he told Bueckers she was “famous for being famous,” and didn’t understand the intense hype since she hadn’t played a single game up until then. Auriemma jokingly would call her “Paige Kardashian.” The nickname swiftly ended once the masses “fell in love” with her playstyle, Auriemma said.

Then, the publicity came to a screeching halt. Ravaged by injuries, Bueckers played just 17 games the following season and totaled less than 15 points per game.

“She disappeared, through no fault of her own,” Auriemma said.

Bueckers said the physical toll she experienced as a sophomore and junior equaled her mental struggle. All while recognizing that any UConn star is subject to grueling requirements.

“Everyone expected me to perform at that level and even better and just come back in tip-top shape,” Bueckers said. “But it takes time.”

Bueckers had to sit down and think about how much grace she needed to give herself. The stress bogged her down. But in her journey to regain her old form, she developed a relaxed attitude, which has led to glowing results.

Per Auriemma, Bueckers has put together her best season yet. He marveled at her efficiency, as she’s racked up 21.5 points per game off 54% shooting and a 42% clip from 3. Auriemma even made the bold claim that Bueckers’s recent performance at the Big East Tournament was the best he’d ever seen.

In three games from March 9-11, Bueckers dropped more than 27 points a contest and went a scorching 12-for-24 from 3-point range. She earned tournament MVP honors after leading the Huskies to a Big East championship.

“I think she’s been the best player in the postseason in the country,” Auriemma said.

Her counterparts have noticed the difference, too. UConn guard Nika Mühl said there’s been a palpable change within the team ever since Bueckers’s return. Forward Aaliyah Edwards added that Bueckers helps the Huskies get “in sync.” Her veteran presence has caused them to move with intention and consistently make the right decisions up and down the court, Edwards said.

SU head coach Felisha-Legette-Jack, who rarely praises opponents, gushed over Bueckers as well. Legette-Jack complemented her versatility as a three-level scorer and a prime defender who possesses an elite IQ. She said her squad can only hope to contain Bueckers when it battles UConn, and will focus on stopping the rest of the Huskies’ roster.

Fellow All-American Dyaisha Fair, who’s also typically soft-spoken about anyone on the opposition, didn’t hesitate when applauding Bueckers’s game.

“(Bueckers’s) ability to score at her length, her size and just her natural ability in what she does with her instincts makes her special,” Fair said.

Bueckers’s resounding campaign has stemmed from exuding a tranquil mindset. She doesn’t think about the immense pressure which comes through playing at UConn. Instead, Bueckers said she manifests positivity, adding she performs better when her head is clear.

“I feel a lot of pressure from the outside, but no one puts pressure on me like I do myself,” Bueckers said. “(I’m) just continuing to get back to just having fun like I’m at the playground.”

This March is Bueckers’s penultimate opportunity to reach her sky-high ceiling — one Auriemma spotted early. Though, Bueckers wasn’t very imposing as a recruit.

Auriemma said she weighed about 90-to-100 pounds in high school. She’d play at “100 miles per hour” but come back to the bench panting after a short stint, according to Auriemma.

“She was like the proverbial balloon. When you let it out, it just —” Auriemma said, mimicking the sound of a balloon deflating.

“Seriously?” he remembered saying. “This is the best player in the country?”

Yet, filling out Bueckers’ frame was nothing more than a nitpicky concern for Auriemma. He used Hall of Fame head coach Bob Knight’s words, saying you can teach a player how to look, but not to see. The latter is a natural-born quality. And Auriemma knew Bueckers had it.

Now, Bueckers is amid a season Auriemma sees as just the start for the senior. Bueckers said she’s been appreciating every little thing this postseason, citing how quickly the chance can be taken away. Still, the pressure remains enormous and the odds are stacked against UConn to win its first national title since Stewart’s days.

But Bueckers’s restoration from significant injury has only led Auriemma to believe she’ll complete the prophecy of becoming the Huskies’ newest March legend.

“You’re born with some of it,” Auriemma said of Bueckers’ talent. “The rest, she’s worked her ass off for. And she deserves everything that she’s getting.”

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