Dom Amore: Time for Paige Bueckers, UConn women to dial down pressure, play the moments (2024)

HARTFORD — It was a quiet first a half for Paige Bueckers. Too quiet.

Three field goals, five misses, she walked off the floor muttering as the UConn women found themselves mired in a tie game at the half.

“She thinks she should make every single shot, so when she misses, she gets angry,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Like she’s not allowed to miss. And then I get mad at her, and she gets mad at me for getting mad at her. There’s a conundrum there.”

A conundrum, by definition, is a riddle for which there is no easy answer, so maybe it’s time for this version of the UConn women’s basketball team to stop searching for answers and just let ‘er rip. This is a good time to hit the reset button. Bueckers lifted some pressure and a lot of the doom and gloom that had hovered due to the Huskies’ five losses to ranked teams when she announced last Friday she was coming back for another season, right after Aubrey Griffin’s did the same thing.

UConn women’s basketball beats Creighton 73-53 to clinch Big East regular season title share

That shouldn’t make the desire to win, or the sting of losing any less, but it does lift the now-or-never finality for most of the team with March Madness coming. And the Huskies, whittled down to a very short rotation by injuries, are in a perfect place to just cut loose from what has gone on up ’til now.

Bueckers did so in the second half, shedding the perfectionist’s cape and making a few of those plays only she can, scoring 16 to finish with 24 points. The Huskies wore down Creighton and won going away, 73-53, clinching at least a tie for the Big East regular-season title, and the No.1 seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

“Having that decision made, having no more questions asked all the time, being able to just focus on the rest of the season at hand,” Bueckers said. “Sometimes Coach will yell at me, or (Chris Dailey) will yell at me and I’ll be like, ‘It’s cool, we have another year to work on it.'”

This is a one-of-a-kind culture, with the weight of expectations felt on the inside and applied from the outside. UConn won its 30th regular-season conference title, remained unbeaten in the Big East and looks as invulnerable as ever for the conference tournament at Mohegan Sun in three weeks. Creighton, which had won 11 in a row and is the only other ranked team in the conference (20) has lost its two tries against UConn by 44 and 20 points.

Auriemma got his 1,203rd win, passing Mike Krzyzewski on college basketball’s win list. With all that has come before, these things are easily written off as baseline achievements, but maybe it’s time for that to change, at least on the inside.

“I’m probably like a lot of our fans,” Auriemma said. “We made it look so easy. It was never easy, but we made it look so easy for so long that, yeah, you almost forget. For me, now, it’s like going back to the 1980s and ’90s, when you had to play great and you knew that every game you won was special. I told the team today that this was one of the more gratifying, and we celebrate wins now more than we used to.”

When things are right, it can look easy for Bueckers, when UConn is able to spread the floor, open the lane for Aaliyah Edwards, when freshman Ashlynn Shade is able to hit 3-pointers the way she did Monday. It can look difficult, and exhausting at other times.

Postgame Press Conference

— UConn Women’s Basketball (@UConnWBB) February 19, 2024

Auriemma subbed only once in the first half, using Ice Brady for 3 1/2 minutes after Edwards picked up her second foul. Shade ended up playing the whole 40, Bueckers and Nika Muhl 38:41, KK Arnold 36:48. Now they have five days off to rest, and the coach, while exasperated at times in the first half, drawing a technical, was ready to praise his bunch for fighting through the February fatigue.

There’s nothing to see looking over their shoulders. This is what the Huskies (23-5) have to work with, and this is the task they have in front of them: Three more regular season games, likely three games in three days at Mohegan Sun, then March Madness.

Their losses to NC State, UCLA, Texas, Notre Dame and South Carolina have taken off the “team to beat” burden. When Bueckers took the mic at Gampel Pavilion last Friday and told the crowd it would not be her last Senior Night, the type of pressure on her and the Huskies changed again, if subtly.

“Paige feeds off positive things happening to her,” Auriemma said, “and she’s the most positive thinking individual that we have, and that I’ve met in a long time. So she always thinks the absolute best of herself, of her teammates, everybody. And I do think she struggled with publicly announcing that she’s coming back. I would hope that getting that off your plate will allow you to just go and play.”

It was just this nagging shooting slump getting in the way, which perhaps Bueckers got through in the second half against Creighton. This isn’t the time to worry about shooting slumps, or polls or seedings or brackets. It’s a time to just play, play a lot and play in the moment. As a freshman, Bueckers roamed free as the young rock star with a veteran supporting cast around her. After three years and two major knee injuries, she is again playing just about wire to wire, but with a younger supporting cast.

“All of us freshman, when we came in, we were just hooping, like free flowing, we felt like we didn’t have a whole lot of responsibility, although we did,” Bueckers said. “We were just so excited to play for UConn. Nobody was focused on being tired, we just wanted to win and contribute any way we could. Comparing that to now, I have a different perspective because I’ve been in a position where I wasn’t even able to play. So I don’t allow myself to think about being tired, mentally, physically, emotionally, because I’m so grateful to be playing the game again.”

Grateful is a good word, a better word than conundrum for UConn women. It’s time to look ahead, knowing the near future presents great opportunities, and not the last chance.

Dom Amore: Time for Paige Bueckers, UConn women to dial down pressure, play the moments (2024)


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