Paige Bueckers does it all in impressive UConn debut
The first play of Paige Bueckers’ UConn debut began on defense with a play that didn’t even end up in the stat sheet.
She stopped her mark from driving to the basket, forcing the River Hawks player to attempt an ill-advised shot. That opened the door for Olivia Nelson-Ododa to come from behind for a block.
The ball quickly ended up in Bueckers’ hands and she brought it up the court. While UMass Lowell sorted out its defense, the freshman hit a wide-open Christyn Williams behind the arc. The shot clanged off the iron but Bueckers leaped up, grabbed the ball at the free-throw line, slashed through the lane, and banked in a tough shot over a defender for her first collegiate points.
Bueckers finished with 17 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and five steals – all of which were team-highs – in the Huskies’ season-opening win against UMass Lowell. She missed just three shots all night and played 35 minutes, second behind only Williams.
In a dominating win for UConn, Bueckers stood out as the Huskies’ best player. Her performance was an impressive introduction for those seeing the highly-touted freshman for the first time, but Bueckers’ big day didn’t surprise anyone inside the program.
“What you saw Paige do today, that's what Paige does every day. That's who she is,” head coach Geno Auriemma said postgame.
“She's amazing. A-maz-ing,” Evina Westbrook added. “She loves to facilitate the ball, get a lot of people involved when she can, create her own shot at any time.”
Most freshmen statlines don’t have the balance of Bueckers’. Auriemma usually wants them to focus on the part of their game that they do best, knowing everything else will come as they develop and gain confidence. So Mir McLean crashed the boards for 10 rebounds, Aaliyah Edwards used her physicality down low, and Nika Muhl facilitated the offense.
Bueckers, on the other hand, did everything well from the jump. Auriemma likened her to a five-tool baseball player – someone who thrives in every aspect of the game, not just one or two.
“There may be times when she's not shooting it great or there may be times when the right pass isn’t always the right pass,” Auriemma said. “But there hasn't been a time, I don't think, where we would say, ‘You know, there's a part of the game that she's not comfortable with.’ You hate to say this because she's still young, but there really isn't a segment of the game that Paige doesn't feel comfortable doing.”
The coach specifically pointed to Bueckers’ unselfishness with the ball. Though she still finished with 17 points, she easily could’ve scored more if she wanted to. But Bueckers played a past-first game and in the final minutes, she worked hard to get classmate Piath Gabriel a bucket instead of padding her own stats. On one play, Gabriel didn’t even know a pass was coming from Bueckers.
“How many shots did she pass up today that she had that you could have easily said ‘That was a good shot’?” Auriemma asked aloud. “She does that every day. She will pass up a lot of opportunities for herself to score so she can get somebody else a touch and that's why all the players love her. That's why they feel so comfortable around her, because they know she's not out there looking to get 30 every night. She's out there to make sure that we win.”
That reminded the head coach of one of his former players, someone that Bueckers has been compared to more than once.
“She's gonna pass up shots and that makes all the players feel better. That was Diana (Taurasi)’s greatest quality. If you were on the floor with her, you automatically became a better player,” Auriemma said – though he quickly added a qualifier.
“Now, it's not fair to compare Paige to Dee because when Dee was a freshman, Dee had like four or five legends on her team. So this is a different scenario that Paige is stepping into. But they have similar mentalities of how to play the game of basketball, what's important in the game.”
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Bueckers’ performance, though, is the ease at which she played. When the Huskies’ other four freshmen checked into the game, they all looked like players making their collegiate debut.
Not Bueckers, though. From the opening tip, she played with an air of confidence and could’ve easily been mistaken for a grizzled veteran. Even when Bueckers made mistakes (like her three turnovers), they didn’t shake her.
Bueckers admitted after the game that she felt plenty of nerves prior to the game, but noted that’s common for any game she plays. Once the ball went up, she settled in.
“Before the game, I was really nervous. In warm-ups I was nervous. Before tip-off I was nervous,” she said. “But once you start playing basketball, it's just like any other game, just playing basketball, just having fun. Just playing with your teammates, with the coaches and everything like that. So once the basketball game actually got underway, it was kind of calming.”
One great game – especially one against a bad team like UMass Lowell – doesn’t make a great career. But as a starting point, Bueckers’ introduction to college couldn’t have gone much better.
“You know what I like to say about kids that age? When they play and you just say...‘I bet you over the next four years, that's the worst game that Paige Bueckers will play in her entire career,’ Auriemma said. “When you think that she almost had a quadruple-double or whatever she had, then you think ‘Wow she was pretty good today.’ But her expectations, I'm sure, are way higher than today.”
CLICK HERE to watch all the postgame footage from UConn's season-opening win!