SAN ANTONIO — Every player who goes to UConn is special. She has to be, playing for a team that’s won a record 11 national championships and knowing she is an heiress apparent to the likes of Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart.
But there is special and then there is sublime. And Paige Bueckers, only 29 games into her UConn career, is definitely the latter.
There are the stats: 20.1 points, 5.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game. There are the superlatives: the first UConn player to score 30 or more in three consecutive games, and most points (24) by a UConn player in her NCAA Tournament debut.
There are the awards, lots and lots and lots of awards: first-team All-American, Big East freshman of the year, Big East player of the year, most outstanding player of the Big East tournament and, the biggest one of them all, The Associated Press Player of the Year.
Bueckers is the first freshman to win the award since AP began giving out in 1995.
All of this, though, is the result of Bueckers’ greatness, not its source.
At 5-11 and 140 pounds, Bueckers is not a dominant physical presence, like Lobo or even Taurasi. She is quick and she is elusive, and she can conjure shots out of seemingly nowhere.
But it is her ability to dictate a game, to control everything and everyone around her as if she were moving pieces on a chess board, that makes her as fearsome as she is mesmerizing.
“Paige can sense the moment,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Monday night, after the Huskies reached their 13th consecutive Final Four, a streak that began when Bueckers was all of 5.
“Like all great players, she can sense the moment, when it’s time, what’s needed in that time, what’s necessary,” Auriemma said. “And she has the ability to fulfill that moment. Not everybody does.”
Auriemma said that after Bueckers almost single-handedly dug top-seeded UConn out of a 10-point, late third-quarter hole against Baylor.
Yes, the Bears were limited without DiDi Richards, who left the game with a hamstring injury with about 2½ minutes left in the third. But Bueckers took over the game in a way few players can, seeming to be everywhere on the court.
There was the jumper to start UConn’s 19-0 run. After a 3-pointer by Christyn Williams, Bueckers poked the ball away from Sarah Andrews and connected on a 3 to cut Baylor’s lead to 55-53.
Williams made a pair of free throws and Aaliyah Edwards scored on a layup before Bueckers closed out the run with a jumper and another 3. She had scored 10 of UConn’s 19 points, in a 4-minute span, no less, flipping the script on a game that Baylor had been dominating.
UConn will play third-seeded Arizona on Friday night, with a spot in the national title game at stake.
“Paige absolutely has another gear,” UConn associate coach Chris Dailey said last week. “When she gets to that point, it’s tough to stop her.”
The expectations for Bueckers were high even before she got to UConn. She was the national high school player of the year as a senior, and USA Basketball’s female athlete of the year in 2019. She was MVP of the Under-19 World Cup in 2019, averaging 11.6 points and a tournament-best 5.4 assists as the Americans won the gold medal.
But Bueckers has lived up to the hype – and then some. Her matchup with Iowa’s freshman phenom, Caitlin Clark, made the Iowa-UConn game in the Sweet 16 one of the most talked about in March Madness – men’s or women’s tournaments. When Axios released a list of the most marketable players still left in the men’s and women’s tournaments, Bueckers topped the list.
She has the potential to be a bona fide superstar, further erasing the qualifier that, in the past, has limited or marginalized female athletes.
All that, and she’s really just getting started.
“As a little kid, I would be outside at the park shooting hoops, envisioning these moments,” Bueckers said after the Baylor game, “but you never really know if you're going to get those chances.”
A player like Bueckers doesn’t wait for the chances to come to her. She goes out and creates them herself.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Final Four: Why UConn's Paige Bueckers is basketball's next big thing