Paige Bueckers wanted to take mental snapshots Sunday when she stepped on the elevated court at Williams Arena to play against a Gophers team she followed as a youngster.
Bueckers didn’t realize she was starring in Paige-a-palooza, as fans rained applause on her as she entered the arena.
“It was kind of surreal, in a way,” Bueckers said. “I grew up coming to games here, grew up watching a lot of players play here. And for me to be taking the court in a game I used to watch here — it was kind of crazy, kind of surreal. But it was just amazing, the support.”
Legendary Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma sat to Bueckers’ right during the postgame news conference and stared at her as she spoke. Homecoming games aren’t easy, he said, even for the one who’s the best in the game today.
“You never hear Paige say something is surreal, you know, like she’d been through,” he said. “She played in the national championship game. But something like this, I think, is pretty overwhelming for a kid.”
Bueckers had 12 points, eight rebounds and team highs with four assists and two blocks in UConn’s 62-44 victory over the Gophers, most of them coming in the first half. Too bad she wasn’t more relaxed. Any Gophers player would have taken that line Sunday.
The announced crowd at Williams Arena was 10,869, the most since Lindsay Whalen’s debut as coach in 2018. And there’s a good chance that half of them either had played with, played against, met, exchanged high-fives, gotten an autograph from or taken a picture with Paige Bueckers. The audience included a remarkable amount of children.
That’s a reason why Gophers coach Dawn Plitzuweit didn’t cancel the contract to play the game. Did she think about it? Yes. New coaches have backed out of such deals in the past. Plitzuweit saw the benefits of playing in front of such a large crowd. She has a young team, and she felt the game could encourage fans to come watch the squad develop.
So Paige-a-palooza went on as planned, with the lower bowl of Williams mostly full, all suites occupied and a few hundred more on the second level.
The maroon-and-gold-clad audience — with a few UConn fans — roared when Bueckers was announced during introductions.
“The place kind of erupted, and I thought to myself, ‘Hmmmm,’ ” Plitzuweit said. “But that’s what [the game] was intended for. But the great part was when Amaya Battle got introduced, it was equally as loud. I felt like it was, anyway.”
Also in attendance was 15-year-old Mya Cinelli, who was surprised by her mother with a birthday trip to the Twin Cities to watch Bueckers. Cinelli doesn’t play basketball and used to be more of an NBA fan.
“It was only recently with the rise of Caitlin Clark,” Cinelli said of her new favorite sport. “[Then] I saw clips of Paige, so I started watching her high school stuff and I loved it. So I started watching UConn games, and [Bueckers is] my favorite player.”
Cinelli lives in Calgary, Alberta. This was her first trip to the Twin Cities.
“I like it,” she said. “It reminds me of Calgary a lot.”
Bueckers is all of 22 years old but already is an omni: That means she means everything to a community that watched her grow from being a marvelous middle schooler to high school phenom to college basketball maven. And, apparently, she’s expanded into the rest of North America.
Moments following the opening tip, fans crooned as Bueckers got the ball near the top the three-point arc and fired away. The shot was off, and a few groans were heard. Seconds later, she got a hand on a pass by Battle, her dear friend. A minute hadn’t elapsed, and Bueckers already was affecting the game.
By halftime, Bueckers led the Huskies in points, rebounds, three-point attempts, free throws, assists, blocks, turnovers and minutes. Because that’s what an omni does. The Huskies pulled away with a 21-6 burst in the third quarter. The Gophers lost by 18 but didn’t get clobbered by 32 points by UConn, like 20th-ranked Maryland did Thursday.
Bueckers didn’t have a prolific scoring night, but it was an impactful night. She got to play in front of fans, friends and family. The Gophers got beat but weren’t embarrassed. And fans got to cheer for the opponent. Everyone was pleased.