Why UConn coach Geno Auriemma thinks Final Four ‘great learning experience’ for Paige Bueckers

CLEVELAND — Geno Auriemma challenged Paige Bueckers all season to become more selfish, to take over games and shoot on demand. To be the scoring star UConn women’s basketball needs her to be, especially during big games.

She was 1-of-4 in the first 10 minutes of Friday’s Final Four game with trip to the national championship on the line. So as soon as that quarter ended and Bueckers took a seat on the bench, Auriemma rushed over, got in her face, pointing directly at her and yelled: “You need to (expletive) shoot more!”

Paige Bueckers #5 of the UConn Huskies speaks with the media after losing to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament Final Four semifinal game at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on April 05, 2024 in Cleveland, Ohio. Iowa defeated Connecticut 71-69

When Bueckers was asked after the game if Aaliyah Edwards’ late-game offensive foul was the reason for the Huskies’ loss, she was quick to blame herself, how she didn’t play like the player her team needed.

“This is a great learning experience for Paige,” Auriemma said. “Paige is a patient person who waits and I think she is going to learn, or has begun to learn, that there’s no waiting at this time of the year. You make it happen yourself. And you have to be more selfish. I know she wants to be the greatest teammate of all time, but I think those days are over and she needs to assert herself more.”

Bueckers finished Friday with 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting along with four rebounds, three assists and zero steals. She was the only Husky to play all 40 minutes in UConn’s loss to Iowa. Yet still it wasn’t enough. The redshirt junior didn’t create as much as she usually does on offense, gave up shots instead of taking them herself and didn’t move as freely without the ball as she normally does.

“There was something bothering her. I think it was physical. But she wasn’t her aggressive self,” Auriemma said. “She didn’t move the way she’s been moving. And when you see this, she had no steals, so she wasn’t as active as she normally is. If we don’t get great, great games out of Aaliyah and Paige, it’s hard for us to score enough points to win these games. …

“She just had this look about her that wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

Geno Auriemma: Paige Bueckers Will 'Rue' Winning AP Player of the Year

The point guard turned power forward has had a career-year playing out of position. She’s come back from missing all last season with an ACL injury and played better than ever. She again named the Big East Player of the Year and an All-American. She’s proud of the growth she’s made but knows she can be better.

“I feel there were a lot of mistakes that I made that could have prevented that play from even being that big or causing the game,” Bueckers said. “… We should have done a better job. I should have done a better job of making sure we didn’t leave the game up to chance like that and leave the game up to one bad call going our way and that deciding it.

“Yeah, maybe that was a tough call for us, but I feel like I could have done a better job preventing that from even happening.”

Because of UConn’s lack of available forwards this season due to injuries, Auriemma moved Bueckers into the frontcourt. The 6-foot guard thrived in her role. Her length helped her reach in for rebounds and made her a better defender as she was tasked with guarding the other team’s bigs.

Bueckers led UConn with 53 blocks and was second with 86 steals.

“I think definitely early on, I learned to give myself grace. I’ve always had trouble doing that. I expect so much of myself, definitely my toughest critic,” Bueckers said. “… I think just defensively I really wanted to grow and come back from my injury stronger, more mobile than ever. So, embracing that challenge defensively. Playing (positions) one through four, I think will help me in the long run of my career.

“Just being versatile and being able to try to do anything that the team needs me to do to win. Just being a leader for the young guys, and how I play and lead by example and also with my voice. It’s something that I thought I gained a new appreciation for and really embraced.”

The career-year was that much more impressive knowing it was Bueckers’ first full healthy season since her freshman year in 2020-21. She missed 19 games as a sophomore due to a knee injury and her entire junior season due to an ACL injury in that same knee.

Through her time off the court, she leaned on her faith to keep her grounded and motivated. She worked hard every day in rehab and continued to be a good teammate off the court.

“I’m a believer and you can’t be a believer if you don’t believe in the good times and the bad,” Bueckers said. “But I have so much to be grateful for. I played a whole season of college basketball injury free and we made it all the way to the Final Four, which I think was our 39th game. So, 39 games injury free for me. I’m just grateful, extremely grateful for that.”

Bueckers returns to Storrs next year for her fifth season with the Huskies. Her role may look different again next year as UConn loses veteran point guard Nika Muhl and veteran big Aaliyah Edwards to graduation. The Husky star could return for a sixth year if she chooses. She’s expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft when she does decide to move on to the next level.

“Now I’ve played a full season of college basketball injury-free, very blessed. I’m grateful for that,” Bueckers said. “…It’s everything I dreamed of to play for (Auriemma), to play for the whole coaching staff, to play in this program, to play along with people that are my sisters. So, it’s just been a dream come true.

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