Paige Bueckers’ sensational freshman season comes to a close in women’s Final Four

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

SAN ANTONIO — Guard Paige Bueckers had an amazing freshman season at UConn, but it ended a game earlier than she hoped. She picked up some national player of the year awards this season, but not the hoped-for national championship.

Bueckers and the River Walk Region No. 1 seed Huskies ran into one of the toughest defenses they faced this season, falling 69-59 to Mercado Region No. 3 seed Arizona in the national semifinals Friday at the Alamodome.

Bueckers finished with 18 points, six rebounds and four assists, but she went 5-of-13 from the field. And some of the things that UConn coach Geno Auriemma worried about this season regarding how much the Huskies relied on Bueckers ended up hurting them against the Wildcats.

“I learned a lot on the court, off the court — just the details of the game,” Bueckers said. “Little things I never thought about in high school. Whether that’s off-ball movement, defensive movements. Just how to play the game the right way. Just getting under Coach Geno’s wing and learning all the details of what makes a great player.

“I feel like I sort of took steps and sort of see what it takes to be to be great. Just looking forward to getting back to work and winning a national championship next year.”

Bueckers finishes her first season averaging 20 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals per game. She led the Huskies in all of those categories except rebounds. She shot 52.4% from the field and 46.4 from 3-point range. Her 64 treys were also a team-high, and she also shot 86.9% from the free-throw line.

On a UConn team with no seniors, she immediately became a sensation. Her 31-point game against South Carolina on Feb. 8 was her third consecutive 30-point game, something no Huskies player had done before.

Bueckers was Big East freshman and player of the year, and also won player of the year honors from the Associated Press and ESPN.com. Friday, she became the fifth freshman to score at least 100 points in an NCAA women’s tournament. She finishes with 108, putting her third behind Tennessee’s Tamika Catchings (111 in 1998) and Southern Cal’s Cheryl Miller (109 in 1983). Former UConn player Breanna Stewart had 104 in 2013.

Stewart struggled a few times in her freshman season, but by the NCAA tournament she was unstoppable — and led the Huskies to the 2013 championship. Stewart ended up winning four NCAA titles and four most outstanding player awards at the Women’s Final Four.

That’s the standard for every women’s college star from here on out, and Bueckers wanted to try to match Stewart. But as Auriemma said, it’s much harder to do than UConn has made it look at times in winning 11 national championships. And Bueckers isn’t the first superstar freshman at UConn to come up short her first year with a national semifinal loss. It happened to Diana Taurasi in 2001 (she went on to win three NCAA titles) and Maya Moore in 2008 (she won two NCAA titles).

Two other UConn freshmen, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Mühl, were also important contributors this season. But Edwards was limited to eight points Friday, and Mühl, returning from an ankle injury, had two.

“Well, obviously without our freshmen, we wouldn’t be here, right?” Auriemma said. “Each and every game, each and every time that we were together, they learned a lot, they contributed a lot.

“You could see their inexperience show [Friday]. I thought this was not one of Aaliyah’s better games. But she got better as the game went on. Nika hasn’t played in a while. Paige is another example that you’re only as good as your teammates. It’s the bottom line. You’re only as good as the team around you.”

Auriemma said there was lot to take away from Friday’s game for Bueckers and the rest of the Huskies.

“As good as Paige was this year — and she carried our team through most of the season — that’s not how you win championships, with one player having to do everything,” Auriemma said. “She needs to get a lot better. As good as you all think she is — and she’s really good — if we’re going to be here the next couple years with her at Connecticut, she needs to get a lot better. I don’t mean just on the court either.”

Auriemma didn’t say specifically what he meant by that, but Bueckers said she thought there was another level in competitive mentality she needs to reach. That sounds like a really harsh assessment when you look at all she did this season, which was immense. A national semifinal loss doesn’t change that Bueckers had an incredible season. But the bar is high at UConn.

“I think just having a killer mentality no matter who we’re playing, when we’re playing,” Bueckers said. “If it’s the first game of the season, if it’s the last game of the season. It’s going to be huge for us going forward.”

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