UConn’s title hopes may rest on Paige Bueckers taking even bigger role: ‘She’s got a lot on her shoulders’

Both Geno Auriemma and Dawn Staley feel Bueckers should be more aggressive offensively

UConn has dealt with plenty of obstacles the last few seasons, namely injuries, and it’s done relatively well adjusting. However, the Huskies’ solution to taking it to the next level is as clear as water: more Paige Bueckers.

No, that is not exactly a new revelation, but even South Carolina coach Dawn Staley pointed out that Bueckers, an excellent team player, could help UConn by being a little more selfish.

“I love Paige’s game,” Staley said after the Gamecocks’ 83-65 victory over UConn on Feb. 11. “For me, I would like for her to take more shots, if I’m Geno [Auriemma], because she doesn’t take bad shots. She’s got great court vision, she’s got great court awareness. Paige is going to be an Olympian at some point soon.”

The Gamecocks clearly dominated the Huskies in their recent meeting, but Staley still praised what Auriemma has done with the Huskies and what Bueckers brings to the table.

A redshirt junior, Bueckers sat out all of last season after tearing her ACL. The guard was a little rusty the first few games this season, but she’s found her offensive rhythm and has even become a standout on the defensive end.

Bueckers is the Huskies’ leading scorer at 20 points per game while shooting well over 50% from the field and over 43% from 3-point range. However, despite being one of women’s college basketball’s biggest stars, she is not even top 40 in field goal attempts, which begs the question: should she be more aggressive in finding her shot?

UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards has been a strong contributor, averaging 18.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, and other Huskies have had some big moments this season. But after the South Carolina loss, Auriemma said he needs more from UConn’s role players to support Bueckers.

“The scenario to winning and to really good players being really good is you need other good players around you to play well, but you also need time on the bench to recharge yourself,” Auriemma said. “Unfortunately, [Bueckers] doesn’t get enough of that.”

Due to multiple injuries and several inexperienced players on the roster, UConn’s usual rotation has featured just seven players. That’s not expected to change at any point this season.

“[Bueckers] is going to have to force the issue every time down the floor, and that’s not how she likes to play,” Auriemma said. “Which is going to take even more out of her going forward. So, yeah, she’s got a lot on her shoulders right now.”

In 2021, Bueckers became the first freshman to win the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year and USBWA Player of the Year. UConn made it to the Final Four that year before losing to Arizona, but the future looked so promising with such a talented young player.

However, Bueckers suffered a major injury the following season and sat out 19 games before returning in late February. The Huskies still managed to make it to the 2022 national title game against South Carolina, but they lost 64-49 with Bueckers being UConn’s only double-digit scorer with 14 points.

Because of all the injuries, that potential Bueckers showed during her first year has left a huge “what if?” on everyone’s mind. However, there is no denying she has been outstanding in this comeback season, despite the bumps along the way.

“Paige was good when she was injured,” Staley said. “She was good in the national championship game.

” … Everything that she does has a purpose. There’s no wasted movements out there on the floor. If you have some slippage defensively, she’s going to make you pay with her shots, she’s going to make you pay with her ability and her vision, she’s going to make you pay with rebounding the basketball. She’s that kind of player, just super well put together.”

The Huskies are not quite the same dominant force they were when they won four consecutive titles form 2013- 2016, but injuries have played a huge role, and their only losses this season have come to some of the nation’s best teams: NC State, UCLA, Texas, Notre Dame and South Carolina.

On senior night, Bueckers pointed out that her only “normal” college basketball season was her freshman campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was not a “normal” season for anyone. Bueckers hasn’t given up on the Huskies’ 2023-24 title hopes yet, and she also let fans know they can be excited about next season too as she’s forgoing April’s WNBA Draft to return to Storrs.

“Obviously, these four years didn’t go how I planned or how I wanted it to go, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world …” Bueckers said. “Unfortunately, this will not be my last senior night at UConn. I’m coming back. Thank you guys, we love you. We still need your support the rest of the season.”

Aubrey Griffin, who was averaging 9.5 points and six rebounds per contest before tearing her ACL on Jan. 3, also confirmed she is returning next season. This already gives the Huskies a huge boost of confidence.

“Obviously, it changed the whole nature of things, the whole dynamic of things,” Auriemma said. “There’s a lot of excitement about the possibilities of having a full squad.”

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