MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesotans love talking about Minnesotans. They also don’t like to brag. It’s a tad of a predicament at the moment.
The state’s own Paige Bueckers is back home, but it’s not for spring break. Friends and family who want to see the Connecticut sophomore guard are filling Target Center as she chases an NCAA national championship down the highway from her hometown of Hopkins.
“I dreamt of these moments being able to play in March Madness, playing in the Final Four, the national championship game,” Bueckers told reporters on Saturday before an open practice for fans. “To do it 10 minutes away from where I live, it’s super crazy to me. [It] still hasn’t hit me yet, but that’s why I think this is only a story God can write.”
Bueckers called it a full-circle moment to be back here playing for a trophy when two years ago the Minnesota state title game was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It seemed unlikely UConn would even make it here two months ago. Even 48 hours ago, it was a questionable proposition.
Yet, here the Huskies are as an underdog (yes, seriously) in what feels to some like another home game for the powerhouse program when they face No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in the women's national championship game (8 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN).
There will be a heavy Husky presence in the crowd, and Bueckers’ homecoming is a part of that. But throughout the downtown streets of Minneapolis are fans in garnet and black who won’t let Target Center become as Husky heavy as Total Mortgage Arena in Bridgeport was for the Elite Eight. The excitement around Bueckers is here, but as with women’s sports collectively, it’s still growing.
Paige Bueckers only as good as health will allow
While it’s special for the Huskies to be in their 2021 Naismith Player of the Year’s backyard, mostly it’s another business trip shuttled between hotel and arena.
“We haven’t gotten to see around Minnesota because of the games and our schedule, but it’s really cool to see,” senior Christyn Williams said. “Some of our teammates went to the Mall [of America] and saw Paige and her Gatorade [mural]. It’s fun to see one of our teammates do an event like that. We love Paige to death, and we’re excited that we get to play in her hometown.”
The crowd included AAU and high school teammates Bueckers said she wanted to make sure were taken care of and enjoying this with her. Target Center erupted for Bueckers throughout the semifinal Friday night, hitting ear-splitting screams late in the fourth quarter when Aaliyah Edwards took a charge. Bueckers rushed to stand over her on the baseline and scream in exaltation while helping her up. Fans bellowed with her through 14 points, five assists and four rebounds.
And they grimaced alongside her at every hard fall to the floor. In that same quarter, she was slow to get up after slamming into a body, then the court before limping toward the bench. She briefly sat without seeing an athletic trainer and came back in, only to take another fall later. Bueckers said immediately after the game she was “OK” and she didn’t appear affected in an hour-long open practice session on Saturday.
“As far as Paige is concerned, yeah, she took a couple of falls, but that’s every game,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma told reporters Saturday. “People bang her around. They knock her around. There were a couple of plays yesterday that were just mind-boggling to watch.”
Unless she’s struggling physically or with her game, Auriemma said he’s leaving her in.
“It’s the part of the season right now,” he said, “where if I’m managing her time, that means I’m worried about the game we’re going to play nine months from now that’s really meaningful, and she won’t have enough time to recover between now and nine months from now.”
Azzi Fudd, UConn’s No. 1 recruit the year after Bueckers, is also making a homecoming of sorts. Her father, Tim Fudd, told the crowd during open practices Saturday that her grandparents are from the Twin Cities and it’s “special to be back.” Fudd called it her “second home.”
“I’ve been coming here since I was in my mom’s stomach,” Fudd said. “I’ve never missed a state fair. My grandparents live here and all their family. I have countless cousins here. I come every summer.”
A large crowd watched practices with their phones filming and a group of three young girls clutched a photo of her they shared on the Jumbotron. Every time Bueckers walked near media row, a group of girls yelled her name and she’d give a quick smile and wave.
UConn bias or Bueckers mania?
UConn is here to break a winless skid dating to 2016 when Breanna Stewart, playing across the street with Team USA basketball, finished off four titles in four seasons. At the Minneapolis Convention Center, which is hosting three days of fan events, a teenager signed the “Go Huskies” sign in four different spots. She said her family travels to the Final Four every year and she became a UConn fan because, well, the Huskies also make the trip every year. And when they make it to the title game, they’ve been unbeatable at 11-0.
There is UConn blue all over the city in alumni and fans. Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird hosted the “Manningcast” style Final Four broadcast to great acclaim. Fans were chattering about while watching Team USA teammates, many former Huskies, take a temporary court at the convention center in an open practice session.
Valentina Ziperstein, 11, was there to watch, sporting a Maya Moore No. 23 Minnesota Lynx jersey, another UConn alumna. She never saw Bueckers play at Hopkins, but started watching her highlights on YouTube and became a fan.
“I think it’s kind of cool that she’s at home and could win the whole thing at home,” Ziperstein, who plays travel and school basketball, told Yahoo Sports. “And her parents can easily be here.”
Ziperstein’s mom, Angie Hernandez, said they’ve been talking about Bueckers this weekend because it’s someone to whom her daughter, who aspires to be a pediatrician, looks up to.
“It’s great to have that kind of connection to somebody who is great at her sport and excelling and shows great sportsmanship,” Hernandez said.
They’ll be watching from home while Hernandez’s father, 86-year-old John Hernandez, is at Target Center. He’s a huge women’s basketball fan who tells his granddaughter how much better it is than the NBA.
“We’ve been saying how much grandpa must be in seventh heaven right now,” Angie Hernandez said. “He’s having a ball.”
Minnesotans show up for their sports teams in person, two general managers of downtown bars told Yahoo Sports. The excitement at the hubs of Target Center and the convention center aren’t necessarily being felt everywhere else, but Bueckers in the championship game is a start.
Minnesotans backing Bueckers
It was an electric atmosphere Friday night at the 8th Street Grill three blocks away from Target Center. Jason Camarena, the general manager, said there were a lot of people eating before heading to the games and it was a good vibe. There’s “no doubt about it” that most are cheering for UConn.
“A lot of people are talking about [Bueckers],” he told Yahoo Sports. “Absolutely. I mean, that’s the story in town.”
Even without Bueckers chasing a title in her hometown, he thinks there would be a buzz and bump there. The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) is in town for a convention and members were eating at tables. Down the road at Brit’s Pub, South Carolina fans had taken over. And the crowd at the convention center roared when Team USA’s A’ja Wilson chatted with them and asked for a “Go Gamecocks” cheer.
“There’s still four teams in it,” he said. “So [Bueckers] doesn’t make the whole tournament, she just makes it exciting for local people to have something to hang on to and root for. I think local people if they don’t have a favorite team, they’re going to root for UConn because of her. But I think people are still going to be here [without Paige].”
Camarena considers women’s sports dear to his heart. He enjoys track and field, and when his daughters began to get into sports, he started watching women’s sports leagues. The bar puts games on, including volleyball with large tournaments in town. The 8th Street Grill clientele have been talking about the action and Bueckers, and that’s a start in the larger conversation. A father at the convention center said he started telling his young children about Bueckers this weekend because the tournament was in town, she was local and they were attending events.
“We all know that women’s sports doesn’t get the hoopla that men’s does, right? So I think it takes a little bit more for people to catch on to that,” he said. “Us seeing it every day on the TVs, we’re more aware of it, but I think people locally are just starting to kind of get that. They’re talking about it, we can hear them talking about it. I think that’s the first step. They’re realizing what is happening where people in other cities don’t.”
Time will be the decider in if Bueckers can bring another honorary championship to her hometown and if this moment can continue to grow. But if UConn wins, don’t expect Minnesotans to brag. They will happily talk about it if asked, though.