By Amable Aristy
Gatorade National Player of the Year. Naismith Prep Player of the Year. Wooden Award, USBWA’s Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, Naismith Trophy. AP National Player of the Year.
If you could not already tell, this is the current resume of University of Connecticut star, Paige Bueckers. She has gathered these awards, along with a number of others, since the start of her freshman year at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota.
During her time at Hopkins, she quickly rose to stardom and into national headlines. She was a phenom earlier than most. Her first year at that level came as an eighth grader, when she averaged 8.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG and 2.1 SPG.
Those numbers then skyrocketed during her freshman year when she averaged 21.6 PPG, 4.2 APG, 4.5 RPG and 4.2 SPG. It is mind blowing that she was able to stand out so much in the box score, because those are stats you would expect a seasoned senior to put up, especially given the league that Hopkins High was in. Freshmen are usually either at the end of the bench or don’t have the ball in their hands much to begin with.
Not Bueckers though. From day one, she had the rock in her hands and was trusted to put to work against the opposing teams to bring in as many wins as possible. She never bowed down to pressure. Between her sophomore and senior high school years, she continued to dominate the game, as she averaged 22.7 PPG, 7.1 APG, 5.2 RPG and 4.5 SPG.
Bueckers capped off that portion of her life with invites to the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic. Her hard work and determination led to numerous D-1 offers, but only one stood out more than the rest: the historic 11-time National Champions — the UConn Huskies.
Bueckers sits in a star-studded list that features a significant number of players who were also in the spotlight and came to play in the basketball capital of the world under arguably the best college coach of all time, Geno Auriemma.
The only difference between Bueckers and those who came before her is that none of them had to face a global pandemic while staying focused on both school and basketball.
“It’s definitely different than what I thought it was going to be,” Bueckers said back in August. “There’s a lot of protocols and rules that we have to follow. So it’s definitely been an adjustment.”
But none of that stopped her. She stayed ready, prepared and determined for the start of the season — or at least what she and the team thought would be the start.
The team’s first three games got cancelled while another got postponed due to a COVID-19 pause within the program. The team was not allowed to practice or take part in any type of team activity for 14 days. They had to find a way to stay active.
Even after such a long break, Bueckers did not disappoint in the team’s first game on Dec. 12 against UMass Lowell. Bueckers started hot right out of the gate as she dropped 17 points, five assists, nine rebounds and five steals in a 79 to 23 UConn win.
Bueckers made it known to the rest of the country that she came to UConn to continue the work she was putting in at Hopkins, as she outdid her first performance by dropping a smooth 25 points, five assists and four rebounds in the team’s second straight win in their first conference game.
That was just the beginning for Bueckers, as she did not let go of the gas pedal. Throughout the team’s next seven games, she continued to dominate by averaging 16 PPG, 5.8 APG, 5.7 RPG, and 2.7 SPG. That made it nine straight wins to start off the season for the Huskies.
The craziest part about it all is that her biggest game within that span came against #25 Tennessee, when she only dropped a mere nine points. Even after spraining her ankle late in the nail-biting game, Bueckers secured what was more than likely at the time her biggest play in her brief college career. A game clinching 3-pointer with 25 seconds left in the game.
Buecker’s stayed with it and knocked down a dagger. She had ice in her veins.
The injury held her out of the team’s next game against Georgetown before she came back the next game against #19/17 Arkansas, during which they suffered their first loss of the season even as she recorded her then career-high in points.
Despite the setback, Bueckers had what was arguably her best stretch of the season, starting that game and continuing through another seven games. In just two games after the Arkansas matchup, she scored her first of three straight 30-point games, which made her the first in UConn history to accomplish such a feat.
The last of the three might have been the biggest one, with it coming in an overtime game against the #1 team in the country, South Carolina. She single handedly put the team on her back by scoring the last 13 points, even with South Carolina playing tight defense on her. That was huge, especially given that she did not go to the bench at any point in the game.
After the game, Auriemma said “When you’re as good a shooter as she is, she really just has a lot of confidence in her ability.”
It was all smooth sailing from there for the rest of the regular season. The team won each of its remaining games by 10 points or more. Within that streak, Bueckers recorded a UConn single-game assist record at Butler with 14, and all in all, she did what she had been doing all season: controlling the pace and being the best player on the court at all times.
The streak continued in the Big East Tournament, where UConn won the championship with ease. That Bueckers leadership and superstar play led UConn through the three games.
That leadership and her play in the regular season won her the 2021 Big East Player and Freshman of the Year, Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player, 2021 All-Big East First Team and 2021 Big East Freshman Team. All one can say is that man, she is good.
Even under the brightest of lights, the NCAA tournament, where UConn was a #1 seed, once again, Bueckers put the team on her back and put in the work.
The first two rounds were a breeze against High Point University and school rival Syracuse. That was a testament to the lack of pressure she felt. This goes especially for the next game against #5 seed Iowa. This game provided Bueckers a chance to go head-to-head against fellow phenom Caitlin Clark.
Instead of listening to the media and trying to prove her worth, Bueckers focused on helping the team move forward in the tournament. They did just that, as UConn won 92-72.
Now, while the next game was less of a superstar vs. superstar headline and more of a top team vs. top team rivalry, Bueckers continued to ball out. UConn faced #2 seed Baylor, a school they were supposed to play early in the regular season but did not because of COVID-19.
Even though scoring came with more difficulty, Bueckers still dropped a light 28 points and got the game-sealing steal at the buzzer to lead UConn to a close 69-67 victory.
Next came the Final Four, where the Huskies and Bueckers were unable to create any momentum at any point in the game and lost to #3 seed Arizona 69-59. In the last game of the season, Bueckers struggled from the field and had only 18 points, four assists and six rebounds while shooting a mere 38.5%.
While it was a tough loss, it was an astonishing and amazing season for the player who is already in the conversation for the best overall athlete in UConn history. Bueckers accomplished more than anyone, besides maybe herself, might have pictured. The talent she has is inexplicable, and it shows based on the many awards she won this year alone, which was a whopping 16.
All of that said, if you did not know who Paige Bueckers was before this year, now you do. Not only will she keep getting better and keep winning awards, she will also be the best player in the country for years to come. Why is that? I’ll tell you why.
SHE. GOT. GAME.