MINNEAPOLIS – When Paige Bueckers entered the family ballroom at the UConn hotel in Minneapolis, she headed straight for the Tara Starks. The former Bueckers AAU coach knew what was coming, and turned just as she jumped towards him, colliding with her side. It’s a traditional greeting for two, even if the Starks sometimes wish it weren’t.
“I always tell her, ‘My knees suck. My back is bad. What’s wrong with her? “” said the Starks. “But it’s almost like the kid I sat and talked to in 11th grade. It’s no different.”
Buckers grew up in St. Louis Park, an eastern Minneapolis suburb, 10 minutes from the Target Center, where the Four Women’s Finals will take place on Friday. She played at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka. She won the state championship at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena – known in the Twin Cities as The Barn – and lost at the Target Center. There’s even a mural of Bueckers in the form of a Gatorade ad in the Mall of America.
The Bueckers led the Huskies to Final Four with an incredible performance in a two-hour thriller against NC State in the Elite Eight. The sophomore scored 27 points and racked up six rebounds in a 91-87 victory, helping the Huskies to a 14th straight finish in the Final Four. And she did it while continuing to work after surgery to repair a tibial plateau fracture and a meniscus tear in her left knee.
“Our program is not going to win this game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said, speaking to reporters after the win over NC State on Monday night. “Shows can get you into this game, but someone needs to be big. Without such a performance, there is no [Final Four]. “
Almost four months ago, it seemed doubtful that the Bueckers – and UConn – would show up here.
At the Gampel Pavilion on December 5, the Bueckers dribbled across the floor with UConn up 70-52 against Notre Dame. When she tossed the ball with her right hand and flipped her foot to be blocked by a defender, she tripped. After a few more steps, the Bueckers were crumbling in a pile on the hardwood in front of the UConn bench with 38.5 seconds remaining.
Bob Bueckers, Paige’s father, finished watching the game on TV from his home in Maryland. Then he silently took the phone and just lay down, heartbroken.
Bob said: “I feel terrible for her. “All the work she put in, and then it was just some weird little accident. And suddenly, she got hurt.”
Bueckers underwent surgery to repair her left knee on December 13. That month was tough for the Huskies. In addition to the Bueckers, freshman Azzi Fudd and sophomore guard Nika Muhl were sidelined with a leg injury. Saylor Poffenbarger and Mir McLean delivered. UConn traveled to Atlanta and ran into a choking Georgia Tech defense, losing 57-44 in their first loss to an underrated team in 239 games.
Fudd, one of the Bueckers’ best friends, knows what it’s like to be sidelined for a long time. She tore her ACL and MCL playing against the Bueckers in the 3v3 tournament in April 2019. Soon after she returned to the court, the COVID-19 pandemic began and even as she was just barely back on the court. participated in some AAU games, she injured her leg. before going to Storms.
Monica McNutt discusses Paige Bueckers and UConn’s Elite Eight wins over NC State.
After the Huskies lost to Arizona in the Finals last year, the Bueckers underwent surgery on April 30 to repair a bony defect in her right ankle. She spent the summer in a warm-up, months before a knee injury in December. Fudd understood uniquely the frustrations her friend and teammates had endured.
“The biggest thing is at the beginning when it looks like your world is over,” says Fudd. “She really doesn’t know what’s in store for her. But I’m there to remind her of the little things, the little milestones for her to look forward to. Remind her that she’s still who she is. Paige Buecker, and keep her spirits high.” “
“It’s great to have Azzi,” Buckers said. “It’s easy to talk to someone and they might say, ‘Oh, I know what you’re going through,’ but they really don’t. So to have someone know exactly what you’re going through. going through and someone who can help you is really important mentally and physically.”
The Bueckers missed 19 games. In that span, UConn lost four. Her first match back was February 25 against St. John’s. She played 13 minutes and scored eight points in the Huskies match. In her first five games before the NCAA, the Bueckers averaged 6 points, 2.6 assists in 18.8 minutes per game. In the NCAA, the Bueckers are averaging 17.5 points, 2.5 assists in 33.75 minutes per game.
“It’s just God could do, the things this team has gone through, the things that I’ve gone through to be here in this position,” Bueckers said. “It wouldn’t even be possible from afar without God and all the blessings he gives us.”
The Elite Eight proved that the Bueckers, the first freshman to be named national player of the year in 2021, can still take over a game.
“I said, ‘Win or go home,'” the Bueckers said after the game. “We won, and I still have to go home.”
The Buckers never won at the Target Center. The last time she played there was in her sophomore year in March 2018, in the Minnesota High School League. Buckers and Hopkins lost to Eastview by five points. The Bueckers scored 37 points. It was a third consecutive state championship loss for Hopkins.
“[The team didn’t lose] three years in a row because of her lack of trying,” said former Hopkins head coach Brian Cosgriff.
When the Bueckers finally got their first state championship the following season, it was at The Barn. “I think there’s a reason why I came back here and why I got the chance,” Bueckers said. “It’s crazy what God does in your life.”
The Buckers’ impact on Minnesota basketball culminated in a mural posted in the Mall of America this week. Fans, especially younger fans, have come to watch her games at Hopkins, arguing and asking for autographs.
When UConn takes on Stanford on Friday night, Buecker will run to a courthouse that already has a part of her in it. She’ll be looking to raise a trophy in Goal Center for the first time alongside her Huskies teammates. And she’ll be playing in front of her hometown crowd – with her family and close friends watching.
“She deserves to be here like at home,” said the Starks. “She deserves the entire status behind her.”
https://www.espn.com/womens-college-basketball/story/_/id/33639864/women-final-four-2022-paige-bueckers-back-home-win-ncaa-title-minneapolis Paige Bueckers returns home to win NCAA title in Minneapolis