SAN ANTONIO — UConn freshman star Paige Bueckers made a grand entrance into the Huskies’ storied NCAA tournament heritage, scoring 24 points in a comfortable 102-59 first-round win over No. 16 High Point on Sunday.
The highly touted guard, named to The Associated Press All-America team last week, added nine points and six assists, as the top-seeded Huskies coasted without their coach, Geno Auriemma, on the bench due to COVID-19 protocols.
“I was just excited to get out here,” Bueckers said. “We’ve been practicing since August for March Madness and we’re just excited for it to be happening. We know through the ups and downs of this year, we’re just excited and blessed and to be here.”
For Bueckers, though, other than her playing well, nothing was all that normal about her first tournament game. After all, Auriemma watched the game from home back in Connecticut, with long-time associate head coach Chris Dailey filling in. Bueckers, though, could still feel Auriemma’s presence.
“I could hear coach in my ear yelling. I think in the first quarter I took about two shots, so I know he was yelling at the TV, I know he was yelling at me,” she said. “So I kind of knew that going 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 — like playing in an empty Alamodome — she showed the kind of poise she’s come to be known for. She didn’t reveal her inexperience until postgame, where she unabashedly geeked out having ESPN’s Holly Rowe interview her.
“It’s a year of firsts and I just wanted to say I’m a huge fan of Holly Rowe 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 indeed started slow, but noticeably asserted herself following an ankle injury to starting guard Nika Muhl, scoring 10 of her 13 first-half points in a flurry of drives to the basket and pull-up jumpers.
“She likes to feel out the game and she likes to get her teammates involved,” Dailey said. “I thought we needed to start running plays to get her shots. Which is what we did and that helped a lot.
“Her pull-up reminds me a lot of Sue Bird. When Sue Bird took a pull-up, I thought it was automatic and she never missed,” Dailey said. “And I think the same light with Paige, it’s just automatic with her pull-up.”
Bueckers said the coaching switch was “different,” but noted the importance the continuity of Dailey’s experience provided.
“Coach and CD have been doing this for 36 years, so they obviously have a really high IQ for basketball,” Bueckers said. “When coach steps out, CD steps up. Obviously it’s different having coach yell at us and CD yell at us, but they’re both great basketball minds and we can count on them both.”
Bueckers has taken on a leadership role within the young Huskies, unusual for a team historically filled with experienced depth and star power. But with seven freshmen and no seniors, Bueckers has welcomed the burden of responsibility, something Dailey said often brings out a next gear.
“Paige absolutely has another gear. The more physical the game, if she thinks she’s getting fouled, the gear comes quicker,” Dailey said. “Paige has another gear and when she gets to that point, it’s tough to stop her.”
Though the Huskies handled High Point with relative ease, they know the games will get tougher from here. No. 8 Syracuse awaits them on Tuesday, which happens to be Auriemma’s 67th birthday.
Bueckers is already thinking of the obvious present.
“I hope to get a win,” she said, “so he can get out here with us.”
Sunday was the 12th time in her debut season that Bueckers topped 20 points, and the 24 points tied her for the fourth-most by a UConn freshmen in the NCAA Tournament since 2000, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.