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Paige Bueckers represents the best of Minnesota, on and off the floor

Target Center will serve as a pseudo UConn home site Friday

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Press Conference
Connecticut Huskies guard Paige Bueckers during NCAA women's Final Four practice Thursday, March 31, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports
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Brian Cosgriff was sporting a Hopkins High School basketball shirt when he walked into a Nike store in Miami while on spring break last year.

The employee working at the store immediately noticed the garb.

“Hopkins basketball?” he said. “That’s where Paige Buckets played!”

Indeed. Cosgriff informed the employee that he was Paige Bueckers’ high school coach. He was then given a discount on his purchase.

“Down in Miami, Florida!” Cosgriff recalled, almost still in disbelief. “She’s huge, no question about it.”

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She is, in fact, an icon. That has been the case for years for Bueckers, now a sophomore at UConn competing in her second consecutive Final Four this weekend — this one in her home state in downtown Minneapolis.

Hopkins athletic director Dan Johnson used to get calls on girls basketball game days — conference games, nonconference, whatever — asking if tickets were still available. Everyone wanted to see Bueckers in action.

Then came the section final in Bueckers’ senior season, a highly anticipated bout with Wayzata. There have been “very, very few times” where Johnson said the Lindbergh Center was sold out to the point where Hopkins, by law, couldn’t let any more people in. Timberwolves players Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Josh Okogie were in the front row.

“That was a night that was probably the biggest girls basketball crowd we’ve ever had,” Johnson recalled. “Wayzata had a fantastic team, we had a great team, and people wanted to watch the game. But there was another probably 300 people that just said, ‘I’m just coming to watch Paige.’ ”

Bueckers was Gatorade’s National Player of the Year during her senior season with Hopkins. She followed that up by winning the Naismith Award for the top women’s college basketball player a year later as a freshman with the Huskies. The sophomore will one day be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft.

“She has put not just Hopkins girls basketball, but Minnesota girls basketball on the map for a number of reasons,” Johnson said.

Cosgriff could only imagine the number of people trying to get in touch with the point guard this week, because he knows what it was like for her at Hopkins. During her senior season, the coach said there were 200 to 300 people waiting outside the Royals’ locker room after games, hoping for pictures and autographs.

A Final Four in her hometown figures to bring more of the same. It’s nothing new.

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“Paige is a walking distraction,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma joked. “It doesn’t matter where we are, whether we’re at school or whether we’re here. There’s just stuff that follows her around.”

Not by choice, mind you.

“It’s difficult, just because you don’t really ask for all that attention, and you just get it, not because you want it, but just because you get it,” Bueckers noted of her general fame. “You don’t want to be the center of attention all the time, and you don’t want to be the person that’s getting all the accolades and all the attention in the media and for the team.”

But that’s what inherently comes from being a face of a sport, a state and beyond. Each of those entities couldn’t ask for a better representative. Because as special as Bueckers is on the court, she’s better off it.

“You definitely want a kid like that representing the sport, the game, the state, because she’s just going to do it the right way,” said current Hopkins girls basketball coach Tara Starks, who coached and mentored Bueckers since the guard was in fourth or fifth grade. “She’s good to people, she works her butt off. Nothing that she has has been handed to her. She’s always represented us in a very high-class way. You couldn’t ask for anybody else to want to represent women’s basketball, the state of Minnesota, other than a kid like Paige.”

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Press Conference
Connecticut Huskies guard Paige Bueckers during NCAA women's Final Four practice Thursday, March 31, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports

Clutch

Starks was yelling at her television during UConn’s thrilling double-overtime Elite Eight victory over North Carolina State on Monday night, begging for Bueckers to get to her mid-range shot as the Huskies tried to hold off the top-seeded Wolfpack.

“It was extremely stressful, but I could start seeing her getting into her shot, and I knew in my mind, ‘This kid wants to come home. I know she wants to,’ ” Starks said. “I knew in my mind that she was going to give everything she had to get back to her family, get back to her home base fans and get back to Minneapolis.”

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Eventually, Bueckers entered a zone. She hit one dagger jumper after another, pouring in 15 points in the extra sessions to lift the Huskies into the Final Four.

Cosgriff was at a restaurant in downtown Hopkins, watching the game with Augsburg women’s basketball coach Ted Riverso. As the contest carried on, soon all of the televisions at the joint were locked onto the game.

“She was hitting big bucket after big bucket,” Cosgriff said, “and you’d hear ‘Paige Buckets! Paige Buckets! Paige Buckets!’ ”

Much like many basketball fans across the country were screaming in their own living rooms. Seattle Storm star forward Breanna Stewart, a UConn alum and arguably the world’s best player, watched and thought “Oh, this is Paige” — a fearless, clutch competitor.

As people around the country were going nuts over the performance, Starks had a different perspective.

“It’s almost like, well, she’s capable of doing this all the time,” she said. “She’s just such a team player, she doesn’t.”

That’s what Cosgriff always insinuated during Bueckers’ high school days. The guard could have averaged more than 40 points per game and no one would have batted an eye. Instead, she averaged 22, along with more than nine assists. Always the best player on the floor, Bueckers never wanted to leave her teammates behind.

“She’s just got such a great basketball IQ, and she loves passing the basketball. Right now, she’s shooting more than she probably would like,” Cosgriff said. “But what’s most important to her — what is absolutely most important to her — at least in my mind, is the relationship she has with her teammates.”

Teammates first

Bueckers just hit a pair of clutch free throws to extend UConn’s lead to three with six seconds to play in the first overtime against N.C. State. A timeout was called, sending the Huskies to their bench. Bueckers high-fived her teammates before reaching Dorka Juhász, a Huskies forward who had suffered a season-ending wrist injury earlier in the game.

Bueckers grabbed Juhász’s face and delivered a kiss to the forehead.

“That’s the way she is,” Cosgriff said. “She’s always been that way. She was really, really concerned for her teammates.”

No matter their age or skill level. Bueckers was becoming a big deal early in her Hopkins career, yet Johnson noted that never impacted the way she acted.

“You knew that there was something special there, because of the way she treated people,” Johnson said. “When she was the senior captain and there were a lot of younger kids on the team, she really brought them in and made them part of what was going on and made them feel important and part of the success of the team and the program. You don’t see that every day.”

Bueckers said UConn is a “selfless” team that doesn’t care about shine or attention. They just want to win, and the Huskies are “super close.” Many of the things Bueckers gets thanks to her fame and achievements, Auriemma said the guard makes sure her teammates get them, too.

“Coach Auriemma has done a great job recruiting and making sure those kids meld together,” Cosgriff said, “and I think Paige is at the center of that.”

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament - Second Round-Central Florida at Connecticut
UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers celebrates with the crowd after defeating the UCF Knights at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on March 21, 2022, in Storrs, Connecticut.
David Butler II / USA Today Sports

Fierce loyalty

Starks said Bueckers is the same person now that she was when the coach first met her.

“Always had a really uplifting personality. Always been a little jokester, can get a little moody at times,” Starks said.

And always fiercely loyal.

When Bueckers returns home, the 20-year-old is still the same, down-to-earth kid everyone has always known, a young woman who hangs with the same buddies and acts the same way.

“I think that’s what makes her special is that all this attention and notoriety and everything she’s accomplished hasn’t changed her,” Starks said.

The education company Chegg announced a new name, image and likeness agreement with Bueckers on Thursday. “Paige and Chegg will work to draw awareness for the issue of student hunger,” per the company’s release.

That starts Saturday — just 12 hours after the conclusion of UConn’s national semifinal game against Stanford — when Bueckers and Chegg will host a pop-up grocery market as a drive-up event at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis — Bueckers’ community — where 6,000 meals will be provided. Starks said Bueckers has always been “adamant” about supporting those who have been there for her, and giving back.

“To be in a position to give back to a community that gave me so much, especially not knowing for so long if I could be here on the court with my team, it’s really fulfilling,” Bueckers told ESPN . “But it’s also only just the start.”

Bueckers’ beliefs are firm, and she’ll speak up for them. Bueckers recently launched the Paige Bueckers Foundation, which is aimed at promoting social justice and creating opportunities for families and children. At the 2021 ESPY Awards in July, when Bueckers won the award given to the best women’s college athlete. She used her speech to first thank those who have supported her on her journey, but then switched gears to note she is “a white woman who leads a black-led sport,” and advocated for black women in sports to be given the coverage and attention they deserve and have earned.

“In today’s world, I think it’s pretty remarkable that young people have a perspective that goes beyond themselves and their sport, and I think she’s in some ways typical of kids her age, that they’re very conscious of what’s going on around the world and what impact they can have on it. And she has the platform to act on it,” Auriemma said. “I’m pretty proud of her.”

The ESPYS speech nearly brought Starks, a black woman, to tears.

“She doesn’t mind saying the things that some people may not have the guts or the heart to say,” Starks said.

The coach knew she was somewhere in Bueckers’ heart and mind when the guard delivered her message. Bueckers confirmed as much. Starks, Bueckers noted, is “family” to her. There were times in Bueckers’ career when other AAU teams would try to convince her to “move up” or switch teams, Starks said. People would tell her she was “better than everybody else.”

“And she would always say, ‘No, I’m not. I love my teammates, I love my coaches, and if I’m not playing with them, then it’s not happening,’ ” Starks said. “And she was concrete on that. There was no gray area. There was no ‘No, I want to.’ It was, ‘No, it’s us, or nothing.’

“She’s always been true to who she is, and the people around her, and she’s never hesitant about that.”

The persona

Cosgriff suspects Target Center will serve as a pseudo UConn home site Friday.

“There will be a lot of Paige Bueckers fans there,” he said.

That’s in part because of the player the star guard has become, but it can also be largely attributed to the person she has always been. As her father, Bob Bueckers, noted in 2019, “what I’m the most proud of is who she is.”

One of the faces of Minnesota basketball truly represents the best this state has to offer, on and off the floor.

“That’s the persona, and I think that’s what draws people to her,” Johnson said. “She speaks from the heart, she speaks her truth, she is mindful of what people need, and yeah, she just is a really good teammate, and a really good person.”

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