UConn’s Paige Bueckers humbled by praise from Geno Auriemma that she’s best in the country – Hartford Courant

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By TIM BOOTH (AP Sports Writer)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Paige Bueckers wasn’t sure how to initially react when UConn coach Geno Auriemma proclaimed her the best player in the country.

“You sort of wouldn’t expect him to say it because of what happens in practice and what happens in the game, how much he yells at you during that,” Bueckers said with a smile on Friday. “But just very humbling, very grateful. Obviously he’s a great basketball mind, has a lot of love for the game, so you respect everything that he says.”

Bueckers will be back on the court, along with her teammates, looking to back up Auriemma’s praise when the third-seeded Huskies face No. 7 seed Duke in the Portland 3 Regional semifinals on Saturday.

Auriemma’s comments after the Huskies’ victory over Syracuse in the second round created a buzz because of all the talent in the women’s game this year and the attention on Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. Asked specifically about them on Friday, Auriemma said it’s the nature of every coach to support and promote their own players.

“I didn’t realize I was causing a stir. I bet you if you asked USC, they wouldn’t tell you Caitlin Clark is the best player. I bet if you asked LSU, they wouldn’t tell you. I bet you if you asked Texas, they wouldn’t tell you,” Auriemma said. “I think every coach thinks the player that’s on their team that’s helping them the most is the best player.

“Listen, I’ve coached the best player in the country a lot more than anybody else coaching in this tournament. It’s OK for somebody else to say their player is.”

A year ago, Bueckers was a spectator recovering from her knee injury when the Huskies were bounced in the Sweet 16 by Ohio State. This time, she’ll be a major reason if the Huskies (30-5) are able to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since losing in the 2022 national championship game.

“Everybody knows I haven’t had the smoothest sailing in college. I’ve had injuries, a lot of adversity,” Bueckers said. “But just taking whatever life throws at me, continue to conquer it with a great mentality. I’ve grown a lot in my faith, in the way I approach things, in the way I take care of my body, handle myself off the court. I think there’s a lot of areas of growth, but just continue to stay humble, stay hungry, let things like that motivate me to be even better.”

What helps make Bueckers stand out is the issues her team has dealt with while missing so many key pieces. The Huskies played just six players against Syracuse, with Bueckers playing all 40 minutes on her way to 32 points.

She’s averaging a career-high 21.8 points entering the Sweet 16 and has scored at least 27 points and played at least 35 minutes in each of her past five games. The big minutes are nothing new — she averaged 36 minutes per game as a freshman in 2020-21, when she was voted college player of the year.

“She’s obviously a really talented player. Pretty complete in every area,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said. “I guess what stands out is there’s not a lot of weaknesses. You have to be really disciplined, really sound. Even when you do that, she’s good enough to still make plays.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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