SAN ANTONIO – UConn newcomer Paige Bueckers made a great entry into the famous NCAA tournament legacy of the Huskies on Sunday, setting a school record for most points in a tournament debut with 24 in a 102-59 router with 16 starting points.
The acclaimed guard, who joined The Associated Press All-America’s team last week, added nine rebounds and six assists as the huskies with the highest seed due to COVID-19 logs without their trainer Geno Auriemma on the bench rolled out.
“I was just excited to get out of here,” said Bückers. “We’ve been practicing March Madness since August and we’re just looking forward to it happening. We know through the ups and downs of this year that we’re just excited and blessed to be here.”
For Bueckers nothing more than her good tournament game was normal, except that she played well. After all, Auriemma was watching the game from home in Connecticut, with longtime assistant head coach Chris Dailey stepping in. However, Bueckers could still sense Auriemma’s presence.
“I could hear Coach screaming in my ear. I think I took about two recordings in the first quarter so I know he was yelling at the TV, I know he was yelling at me,” she said. “So I knew this was going into the second quarter, so I tried to be more aggressive.”
Bueckers said she gets nervous before every game, but in an opening game with unusual circumstances – like playing in an empty Alamodome – she showed the kind of attitude she has become known for. She didn’t reveal her inexperience until after the game, when she blatantly ran away while ESPN’s Holly Rowe interviewed her.
“It’s a premiere year and I just wanted to say that I’m a huge Holly Rowe fan and it’s always been a dream of mine to be interviewed by her after a game,” she said with a big smile . “So I’m just excited to be here.”
Bueckers started slowly, but after an ankle injury he noticeably prevailed against start guard Nika Muhl and scored 10 of her 13 points in the first half in a flood of trips to the basket and pull-up jumpers.
“She likes to feel the game and she likes to involve her teammates,” said Dailey. “I thought we had to start doing plays to get their recordings. That’s exactly what we did and that helped us 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 she never missed it,” said Dailey. “And I think the same light with Paige, it’s just automatic with her pull-up.”
Bueckers said the coaching change was “different” but noted the importance of the continuity of Dailey’s experience.
“The coach and CD have been doing this for 36 years, so they obviously have a really high IQ for basketball,” said Bückers. “When the coach quits, the CD goes up. Of course it’s different when the coach yells at us and the CD yells at us, but both are great basketball heads and we can both rely on them.”
Bueckers has taken a leadership role in the young huskies, which is unusual for a team that has historically been filled with experienced depth and star power. But with seven freshers and no seniors, Bueckers has welcomed the burden of responsibility that what Dailey said often brings out the next gear in her.
“Paige’s absolutely different gear. The more physical the game, the faster the gear comes up if she thinks she’s being fouled,” said Dailey. “Paige has one more gear and when she gets to that point it’s hard to stop her.”
Although the Huskies handled High Point relatively easily, they know the games get tougher from here. No. 8 Syracuse awaits you on Tuesday, Auriemma’s 67th birthday.
Bückers is already thinking of the obvious present.
“I hope to win,” she said, “so he can get out of here with us.”
Sunday marked the 12th time in their debut season that Bueckers had reached 20 points, and the 24 points took them from a UConn newcomer to the NCAA tournament since 2000 to fourth best, according to ESPN Stats & Information Research.