Few players have come into a college basketball season with as much pressure to perform as UConn’s Paige Bueckers. The Gatorade National Player of the Year, No. 1 recruit in her class and supposed best prospect since Husky-legend Breanna Stewart, Paige “Buckets” as the fans have donned her, had all eyes on her in her debut this weekend. And boy did she deliver.
“Paige did all the things that Paige does,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “She scored some points, rebounded the ball, stole the ball, she passed the ball, she had a feel for our offense. Her first game as a college player, I think she played great.”
In her first game of what will be a long and illustrious UConn career, Bueckers led the Huskies to an easy 79-23 win over UMass Lowell, piling on 17 points, nine rebounds, five assists and five steals — all game-highs — in what will surely go down as one of the best debuts in UConn history. For Bueckers, this is what she always expected.
“My expectations for myself are pretty high so [I’m] just trying to live up to what I know I can do, what my coaches want me to do [and] what my teammates need me to do,” Bueckers said. “I try not to focus on what everybody else thinks and what everybody else wants me to do, I just work to be the best version of myself.”
But beyond the attention Bueckers is bound to get from this historical debut, the Huskies put together a great team effort from top to bottom that led them to this easy win.
Bueckers opened up the scoring for UConn (1-0), scoring her first two points off a rebound and put back just under a minute into the game. From that point on it was all UConn as a series of runs and defensive stops saw the Huskies up 27-7 after the first.
Fans saw a glimpse of UConn’s other freshmen in the second quarter, when Aaliyah Edwards and Mir McLean were brought in and immediately went to work, using their physicality and energy to inject new life into a game that could have easily become stagnant. McLean finished the game with 10 points and six boards in just 11 minutes while Edwards put up eight points and four boards, but it was the Canadian’s physicality that impressed Auriemma the most.
“I thought she was a physical force inside the lane,” Auriemma said of Edwards. “Probably the most physical player in the game. Every possession that she was in the game I thought she was a factor in the lane on both sides of the floor. Her aggressiveness is gonna get her in trouble but I’m ok with that. She’s aggressive, she attacks and that’s what she did today.”
A 19-0 run in the second quarter saw UConn up 48-13 at halftime and allowed the Huskies to really settle into the game and use their strengths, which in this team’s case is their unselfish passing and lockdown defense.
Though the team finished with nearly as many turnovers (18) as assists (22), with time and more live play those stats will surely trend in the right direction. Even so, the amount of times a clean look was given up to find a teammate for a better shot should have this team feeling really good about the future. But for Auriemma, this is what he expected with Bueckers on the court, even going as far as to compare her impact to that of UConn and WNBA legend Diana Taurasi.
“She’s not out there looking to get 30 every night,” Auriemma said. “She’s out there to make sure we win, and if you’re open you’re gonna get the ball… That was Diana [Taurasi’s] greatest quality was that if you were on the floor with her, you automatically became a better player just by having her on the floor with you. They have similar mentalities of how to play the game of basketball, what’s important in the game.”
On the defensive end it was transfer Evina Westbrook who set the tone early locking up UMass Lowell’s guards in the perimeter. The rest of the team fed into that energy and shut down the River Hawks allowing just two points in the quarter, the fewest points allowed by the Huskies since 1998 when they held Quinnipiac to two. Westbrook would finish with five points, four assists and two steals in her first game in nearly two years.
The fourth quarter brought more of the same as Bueckers and McLean finished the job for UConn in what was a great team effort headlined by a stellar game for Bueckers and her fellow freshmen. The scariest part of this team, however, are the two names I have yet to mention, Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
The two juniors and captains of the team both had a bit of a rough outing in the season-opener, combining for 22 points on 10-26 shooting, but that just shows you how truly deep this team is. Once those two find their touch this Huskies team is going to get a whole lot scarier in what has thus far been a polarizing season for women’s basketball.
Next up for UConn is four games in the span of eight days beginning at Seton Hall this Tuesday and ending next week against Villanova. But after having waited this long to get back on the court, Bueckers said her and her teammates are ready for the task ahead.
“We’re so tired of practicing, we’ve been practicing for like four months now so I think games are gonna be really good for us,” Bueckers said. “We’re gonna learn a lot more [and] be able to play in a new environment against new people. It’ll be hard but I think we’re itching to play more games at this point.”