IT’S A CRISP, sunny October afternoon, and Paige Bueckers is on the door of the holiest of basketball temples. She sees her reflection within the glass as she pulls open the door to the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center. The brick edifice stands in stark distinction to the concrete behemoth of its next-door neighbor — and UConn’s house area — Gampel Pavilion. The Champions Center is the home that Auriemma constructed.
The first issues Bueckers sees are 15 crystal basketball trophies on show. Thirteen of them glitter behind a wall of glass; the remaining two — from the newest males’s and ladies’s championships — relaxation in their very own instances simply contained in the door. Eleven of those trophies belong to the ladies’s program.
Dynastic greatness gleams at Bueckers with every step she takes by the power. In entrance of the steps that lead as much as head coach Geno Auriemma’s workplace are the “Pillars of the Program” — rectangular glass shows for a few of the gamers who’ve walked by these identical doorways: Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart. All of them All-Stars. Most of them Hall of Famers — and those who aren’t but can be.
The expectations are inescapable. Hanging above the hardwood follow flooring are banners for every of the 11 championships. Different banners, these ones bearing the names of high-achieving Huskies, paint two of the remaining partitions.
Beginning in October, Bueckers will commune with these names each day for 4 years.
As the highest recruit in her class, Bueckers can be taking her ankle-breaking skills to Storrs, Connecticut, subsequent season. She’s the third top-ranked prospect to decide on UConn in 4 seasons, on the heels of her future teammates Christyn Williams and Megan Walker. Bueckers has the normal bona fides of a highschool standout — she has gained a state championship, is averaging 21.2 factors, 9.5 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 4.eight steals per recreation this season, and has been named as a McDonald’s All American. She is a two-time winner of the Gatorade Minnesota Girls Basketball Player of the Year award. She has racked up awards for USA Basketball. She has gained gold medals as a member of under-19 and U17 FIBA World Cup groups. After being named the MVP of the 2019 FIBA World Cup in Bangkok, Bueckers was named the 2019 Female Athlete of the Year by USA Basketball.
She is, by common consensus, the actual deal — the following within the lengthy listing of greats with the hope of parlaying highschool dominance into one other piece of UConn’s navy-and-white dynasty.
There’s only one downside: That dynasty is not what it was.
In different phrases, she’s becoming a member of a dynasty that she’ll bear the expectations of rebuilding — though she in the end won’t bear that burden alone. If Paige Bueckers will get her approach, her finest buddy will do it along with her.
SINCE WINNING ITS first championship in 1995, UConn, by each measure, has been not solely the perfect ladies’s faculty program in historical past however arguably the best program within the historical past of sports activities. Eleven nationwide championships, together with three consecutive (2002-04) and 4 consecutive (2013-16), 22 All-Americans, and 6 gamers named Naismith National Players of the Year a mixed whole of 10 occasions. The program owns the document for the longest win streak — 111 video games — in basketball historical past (males’s or ladies’s).
Six of the 12 members of the 2012 Olympic group have been Huskies. So have been 5 of the 12 in Rio. Only LSU and Tennessee had a number of representatives on the 2012 group, and simply LSU did in 2016.
But the UConn group Bueckers can be becoming a member of hardly resembles that of probably the most dominant group of the previous decade. Although the streak of 12 consecutive journeys to the Final Four stays unbroken, in every of the previous three seasons, the Huskies have failed to assert a title. Add to that the commencement of WNBA Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier and fellow WNBA first-round decide Katie Lou Samuelson, a 2019 recruiting class that noticed solely two signings in No. 21 Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat, a 16-point loss to No. 6 Baylor in early January and an 18-point loss to No. 3 Oregon in early February and this season seems to be a continuation of a sluggish, albeit virtually imperceptible decline that has nudged UConn from its perch atop the ladies’s recreation.
Back in Werth, in Auriemma’s workplace on the second flooring on the finish of the corridor on the suitable, there resides on a chestnut shelf every of the 11 brown and gold championship trophies hoisted by the Huskies, with the cut-down web draped over every of them. Nine of these 11 trophies have been gained with Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore or Breanna Stewart on the roster. “When we lost the last three, somebody said, ‘Well, you know, the only time those guys win the national championship is when they have the best player,'” Auriemma mentioned, sitting in a black leather-based chair. “No s—.”
It’s an admission, of kinds — that in this three-year drought, UConn hasn’t had the perfect gamers. And that signing top-ranked prospects does not imply any of these gamers would be the subsequent Moore or Stewart.
But when Auriemma factors at a photograph hanging on the wall subsequent to his door, it is a shot of Taurasi with the ball in her hand, carrying a Team USA jersey. “[Bueckers] thinks she’s going to be Dee,” he mentioned, not shying away from maybe the loftiest comparability of all. “She has all of the mannerisms. She has Dee’s recreation. She has all of the stuff that goes together with Dee.
“She’s pretty much as good as anyone I’ve seen with the ball in her fingers,” Auriemma continues. “She has one thing that is uncommon.”
THE FIRST TIME Azzi Fudd met Paige Bueckers, she did not suppose very a lot of her. It was the USA Basketball U16 trials in the summertime of 2017, and Fudd was heading into her freshman season, Bueckers a rising sophomore. They ended up on the identical group for a lot of scrimmages. Fudd sized up her competitors. She was not involved about Bueckers.
And why would she have been?
Bueckers was one thing of a neighborhood legend in grade faculty — however a prodigy whose fame hadn’t but crossed state borders. She had began taking part in for Hopkins High School, exterior Minneapolis, in seventh grade, suiting up for the 10th grade and JV squads. “She was a peanut,” said coach Brian Cosgriff, who’s been at Hopkins for 35 years, winning seven state titles in his 21 years as head coach of the girls’ program. “My nickname for her was Olive Oyl, love Popeye’s girlfriend. She was only a beanpole.”
Bueckers, regardless of her measurement, was placing in reps throughout city. “I’d decide her up from the health club, to take her to the health club, to drop her again off on the health club,” mentioned Tara Starks, who coaches AAU in Minnesota and has labored with Bueckers for the previous eight years.
By eighth grade, Bueckers had made the varsity group, coming off the bench. In her fourth profession recreation, she checked in — and made seven 3-pointers. “She basically gained the sport for us,” Cosgriff says.
It was the start of what would turn into an illustrious highschool profession.. Minnesota colleges are prevented from taking part in a nationwide schedule due to a Minnesota State High School League coverage that limits colleges’ journey to North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa.
So when Bueckers acquired an invite to her first USA Basketball camp the summer season after her ninth grade season, she was underestimated — and by none apart from the one that would turn into her finest buddy.
“I checked out her, noticed her on my group and thought, ‘OK, effectively she’s not that good. I undoubtedly obtained her,'” Fudd mentioned.
It was after the group was chosen that Fudd realized her mistake. “There have been at the least seven straight possessions the place she scored in a row,” Fudd said. “No one may cease her, and I used to be love, ‘Oh, so she’s so much higher than I believed she was.'”
Although Fudd is fast so as to add, “I wasn’t guarding her, in fact.”
On the court docket, the 2 started to jell. Both scoring guards with robust ballhandling expertise, their kinds complemented one another. “The approach they performed on the ground, we have been love, ‘Oh, they should be fairly good associates,'” mentioned Fudd’s mother, Katie.
“She’s pretty much as good as anyone I’ve seen with the ball in her fingers. She has one thing that is uncommon.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma, on No. 1 recruit Paige Bueckers
It wasn’t till after the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup that Bueckers and Fudd bonded off the court docket. With gold medals in hand, they boarded a flight from Buenos Aires to Minnesota. Fudd, who lives within the D.C. space, was going to go to household, and Bueckers was on her approach house. The two sat subsequent to one another and talked the complete 15-hour journey — though Bueckers says they have been pleasant earlier than the flight. “She doesn’t remember at all that we were bus buddies,” Bueckers mentioned. “She has a terrible memory.”
Since then, there have been many card video games, many hotly contested Mario Kart matches. (Said Fudd: “[Bueckers] is cocky, so she’s going to say that she’s better, but I’m better at Mario Kart.” Said Bueckers: “Oh yeah, we play Mario Kart. I won, for sure. Did she say she won?”) There was even an ill-fated journey to toilet-paper Cosgriff’s home after Bueckers led Hopkins to a state title final season.
Fudd flew in for that recreation. Afterward, she, Bueckers and one of many assistant coaches loaded rest room paper, themselves and a few mischief right into a automotive. The timber proved to be worthy adversaries. “I’ve by no means seen anybody so unhealthy at TP-ing a home,” Fudd said. “How do you miss the tree?”
Theirs is a authentic friendship — two feisty, like-minded, high-energy skills — and it has large implications for faculty basketball. Although Bueckers has dedicated to UConn, Fudd, the nation’s top-ranked junior and first sophomore to win Gatorade’s National Player of the Year award, has but to commit to a college — and says she has no plans to take action anytime quickly. But that is not retaining Bueckers from placing on the promote. “I know her game better than anybody else knows her game, so I would rather be on a person’s team that knows my game than playing against them, you know?” Bueckers mentioned.
It’s a constant onslaught from Bueckers — recruitment by annoyance, you may say. Bueckers already is aware of Fudd’s recreation. She is aware of the place Fudd enjoys to catch the ball. She is aware of Fudd’s strengths. And she lets Fudd know all of this, usually. “I’m love ‘Oh, my god, shut up,’ I like taking part in along with her, however she’s additionally a variety of enjoyable to play towards,” Fudd said. “So I really feel love it is a win-win state of affairs wherever I am going.”
Says Auriemma: “I’m anxious to see how that plays out.”
PAIGE BUECKERS CHASES her small bro across the health club at Hopkins High School on a Sunday morning in late October. With the primary official recreation of the season nonetheless a month away, Hopkins dietary supplements its offseason exercises with weekend scrimmages. After a blowout victory earlier within the morning, Bueckers is spending a couple of minutes earlier than a matchup with rival Wayzata doing what an older sis does — choosing on her small bro.
When she catches him, a Gatorade bottle turns into her weapon of selection. She squirts it in his face as he laughs. After surviving the ordeal, he sputters and wipes his face earlier than getting up and operating after his large sis.
Then Bueckers & Co. arrange their layup line. Now there are not any video games. No theatrics. Hopkins beat Wayzata 3 times final season, together with a tense three-point victory at house. During that recreation, Wayzata college students had chanted “overrated” at Bueckers. That did not go effectively for them. She silenced the gang with a career-high 43 factors.
“I like when games are competitive and there’s meaning behind them and trash talking,” Bueckers mentioned. “I really enjoy that part of the game. And I don’t know, you have to be kind of good for people to chant ‘overrated.'”
In the Lindbergh Center, Hopkins ends the primary half with a one-point lead. But within the second half, the Royals’ protection stiffens and the lead swells to 13. Bueckers drives down the suitable facet of the lane, leaping into the air to put the ball within the hoop. On her approach up, a Wayzata participant hip checks her, and her physique begins to spin. As she’s falling backward out of bounds, Bueckers makes eye contact with the ring and, on the final second, flips the ball towards the basket with only a little bit of English on it. Bueckers lands on her again, eyes fixing on the ball because it falls by the ring. After her teammates pull her up off the ground, Bueckers smirks and rolls her shoulders ahead love she simply placed on a jacket. She flexes her proper arm and smacks her different hand towards her biceps.
Said Bueckers, “Everybody says I’m not as strong as I should be, and I’ve been trying to tell them, I’m in the weight room.”
“I’m trying to learn to let the game speak for yourself,” Bueckers mentioned. “But that just isn’t me.”
She smirks. “You just can’t hold it in sometimes.”