SAN ANTONIO – University of Connecticut freshman Paige Bueckers made a grand entry into the Huskies’ historic NCAA tournament legacy on Sunday, setting a school record for most points in a tournament debut with 24th in a 102-59 loss of 16 High Point seeds.
The highly touted shooting guard, named to The Associated Press’ All-America team last week, added nine rebounds and six assists, as the top-seeded Huskies slipped without their coach, Geno Auriemma, on the bench due to to COVID-19 protocols.
“I was excited to get out here,” Bueckers said. “We have been practicing since August for March Madness, and we are excited for it to happen. We know that despite the ups and downs this year, we are excited and blessed to be here.”
For Bueckers, however, other than her playing well, nothing was quite as normal in her first tournament game. After all, Auriemma watched the game from home in Connecticut, with longtime associate head coach Chris Dailey replacing. Bueckers, however, could still feel Auriemma’s presence.
“I could hear the coach in my ear yelling. I think in the first quarter, I took two shots, so I know he was yelling at the television, I know he was yelling at me,” he said. “So I knew it coming into the second quarter, so I tried to be more aggressive.”
Bueckers said she gets nervous before any game, but in an opening tournament game with unusual circumstances, such as playing an empty Alamodome, she displayed the kind of poise she has become known for. She didn’t reveal her inexperience until after the game, when she was blatantly flustered while being interviewed by ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
“It’s a year of firsts, and I just wanted to say that I’m a huge Holly Rowe fan, and it’s always been a dream for me to be interviewed by her after a game,” she said with a big smile. “So I’m excited to be here.”
Bueckers actually started out slow, but he remarkably asserted himself following an ankle injury to starting guard Nika Muhl, scoring 10 of his 13 first-half points in a series of basket attacks and jump shots.
“He likes to feel the game and he likes to involve his teammates,” Dailey said. “I thought we had to start making plays to get his shots. Which is what we did, and that helped a lot.
“Her pull-up reminds me a lot of Sue Bird. When Sue Bird did a pull-up, I thought it was automatic and it never failed,” Dailey said. “And I think the same light with Paige, it’s automatic with her pull-up.”
Bueckers said the coach change was “different,” but noted the importance of continuing Dailey’s experience.
“The coach and the CD have been doing this for 36 years, so they obviously have a very high IQ for basketball,” Bueckers said. “When the coach comes out, CD comes forward. Obviously, it’s different if the coach yells at us and CD yells at us, but they are both great minds in basketball and we can count on both.”
Bueckers has taken on a leadership role within the young Huskies, unusual for a team historically full of seasoned depth and star power. But with seven freshmen and no seniors, Bueckers has welcomed the burden of responsibility, something Dailey said often brings up the next gear on her.
“Paige has absolutely another team. The more physical the game is, if she thinks she’s fouled, the team gets there faster,” Dailey said. “Paige has another team, and when she gets to that point, it’s hard to stop her.”
Although the Huskies handled High Point with relative ease, they know the games will get tougher from here. Syracuse Number 8 awaits you on Tuesday, which is Auriemma’s 67th birthday.
Bueckers is already thinking about the obvious present.
“I hope to get a victory,” he said, “so that he can come here with us.”
Sunday was the 12th time in her debut season that Bueckers surpassed 20 points, and the 24 points tied her for fourth-highest for a UConn freshman in the NCAA tournament since 2000, according to research. from ESPN Stats & Information.