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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: BSU’s Jana Swanson rooting hard for UConn… and childhood friend Paige Bueckers

Paige Bueckers, the UConn women’s basketball sensation and a Hopkins native, grew up in the gym with current Bemidji State forward Jana Swanson. And now, Swanson is Bueckers’ biggest fan as the latter competes at the women's Final Four in Minneapolis this weekend.

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Childhood friends Jana Swanson, right, and Paige Bueckers were AAU teammates for North Tartan.
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BEMIDJI — The biggest name in college basketball returns to Minnesota this weekend. And it’s one that Jana Swanson knew before just about anybody else.

“Growing up with Paige, she’s one of my really close friends,” said Swanson, a forward on the Bemidji State women’s basketball team. “I guess knowing a famous person your whole life, you just think of them as another person.”

Paige Bueckers, the UConn women’s basketball sensation and a Hopkins native, grew up in the gym with Swanson. And now, Swanson is Bueckers’ biggest fan as the latter competes at the women's Final Four in Minneapolis this weekend.

“She’s definitely changing women’s sports, and she for sure has a lot of ability and power in her name,” Swanson said. “It’s really cool to have that connection.”

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Bridgeport Regional-UConn vs NC State
Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers (5) drives with the ball against NC State forward Jada Boyd in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament Monday, March 28, in Bridgeport, Conn.
David Butler II / USA Today Sports

Other showstoppers like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith have taken women’s hoops by storm, but none have surpassed Bueckers’ celebrity status. Bueckers has earned her mighty reputation, too, like when she dominated both overtime periods of the Huskies’ Elite Eight win over top-seeded North Carolina State.

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Not only did it clinch Connecticut’s 14th straight Final Four appearance, Bueckers also booked a homecoming to the Twin Cities.

It’s a full-circle moment for Bueckers, who got her start on the same courts as Swanson.

“To be in this position, it’s not even remotely possible without God and all the blessings he’s given us,” Bueckers said during a Thursday press conference. “I think it’s only a story that he could write, that we’re back here in Minneapolis and I’m back at home. … We’re all just super grateful to be here.”

Forging a friendship through basketball

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Bemidji State's Jana Swanson, left, grew up with current UConn star Paige Bueckers and forged a friendship through basketball.
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Swanson figures it was third grade when she and Bueckers first teamed up for a 3-on-3 tournament in Wisconsin. Soon, Swanson’s father wanted to get an AAU team together, and so Swanson and Bueckers both played for North Tartan.

“Growing up, I always knew that Paige could handle the ball and had great court vision,” Swanson said. “She made me look good with the passes that she was giving me -- just dump downs in the post or making that extra pass. For sure, she definitely always made me look better.”

Their chemistry stretched beyond the hardwood by extending to sleepovers, vacations and the like for a childhood that was deeply intertwined.

“Paige was one of my best friends. We were really close with that (AAU) team growing up,” Swanson said. “We’re very close off the court. And then on the court, same thing. Just really close. We’ve always had a great relationship.”

As high school dawned, Swanson went to Cambridge-Isanti while Bueckers played for her first powerhouse at Hopkins.

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Bueckers even faced Bemidji High School -- missing the matchup in Bemidji her sophomore year due to injury but dropping 25 on the Lumberjacks at home as a junior. Swanson and Bueckers also met on the court as seniors in the 2020 state tournament, where the Royals won 85-55 despite Swanson’s Bluejackets holding Bueckers to a season-low seven points.

“She gave me more chances as college opportunities came around,” Swanson said, “because if you’re playing with the best player in the nation, you’re going to get the best coaches to come look at you.”

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Bemidji State freshman Jana Swanson (2) scores in the first half against U-Mary on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, at the BSU Gymnasium.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

Swanson wound up at Bemidji State, where she redshirted in 2020-21 but became a key role player for the Beavers this winter. UConn landed Bueckers, the No. 1 recruit in the country, and she’s now leading her Huskies to the Land of 10,000 Lakes in search of a title.

Connecticut plays Stanford in the national semifinals at 8:30 p.m. tonight, April 1, at the Target Center in Minneapolis. The game is on ESPN. So is Sunday’s championship game, when tonight’s winner meets either South Carolina or Louisville at 7 p.m. for all the marbles.

Bueckers, the only Minnesotan in the Final Four, will likely have the whole state behind her. And no doubt, that includes one of her earliest fans -- especially since the admiration goes both ways.

“I texted her last night and was like, ‘Wish I could be down there with you. Miss you so much,’” Swanson said. “I got a text back within like seven minutes. To have that connection is really cool.”

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
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