Having to play before few or no spectators is tough for the UConn women‚Äôs basketball team.
But it‚Äôs not easy for Huskies‚Äô fans either, who are missing out on the opportunity to watch Paige Bueckers play in person.
The freshman guard finished with 22 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds for her first collegiate double-double as third-ranked UConn rolled past No. 17 DePaul 100-67 in Big East action at Wintrust Arena in Chicago Sunday.
She also had two steals, one that showed in a nutshell was the Minnesota native is all about.
Bueckers knocked away a pass from DePaul‚Äôs Dee Bekelja, then beat Bekelja to the ball with a dive to the floor. She flipped it to teammate Evina Westbrook, who completed a 3-on-1 break with a perfect bounce pass to Christyn Williams for the layup and a foul. Behind the play, Bueckers celebrated with a jump and a scream.
Williams‚Äô free throw made it 70-40, so if Bueckers hadn‚Äôt done what she did, who would have noticed?
Coach Geno Auriemma, for one. He would expect nothing more, even though he sympathizes with his players for what they‚Äôre going through during the pandemic.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just lousy playing basketball at this point in their lives,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs nothing to get excited about. This is just glorified practice, except you‚Äôre playing against another team. There‚Äôs no crowd. There‚Äôs no energy. People say, ‚ÄėWhat‚Äôs the difference?‚Äô It‚Äôs a huge difference. Basketball is meant to be played with the emotion of the game. These games I see are devoid of emotion. So you have to create your own.
‚ÄúAnd I thought we did that today. I thought there were a lot of really big plays, not big in what they meant to the outcome of the game, but big in terms of raising the level of energy and emotion that you need to play well. There were a bunch of those. The way we ran the floor and found people for a couple buckets, those help. It is what it is, but it‚Äôs not ideal. We take what we can get.‚ÄĚ
In the opening minute of the fourth quarter, freshman Aaliyah Edwards made a full dive at a loose ball and the scramble led to DePaul using its final timeout. The score was 79-47.
Maybe it was because these Huskies weren‚Äôt about to be the first to lose back-to-back games in almost 28 years. Maybe they didn‚Äôt want to feel as they did Thursday night in Arkansas following their three-point loss. Sure, they got off to another rough start Sunday, but the effort was 40 minutes in the making.
‚ÄúThat was a really big emphasis after the Arkansas game was just how they had more energy than us, played with more passion and had more fire than us,‚ÄĚ Bueckers said. ‚ÄúSo coming into this game it was really important for us to start from the jump. We did start a little slow but then we picked it up and stayed with it.
‚ÄúObviously the whole no fans thing sucks, but there are no fans for either team so we have to bring our own energy.‚ÄĚ
Bueckers missed her first three shots and had one point (but five assists) as UConn trailed by four after one quarter. She then nailed four straight 3-pointers and a 19-4 run put the Huskies ahead by 14 at the break.
The Blue Demons had no answers for her or her teammates as the score became lopsided.
‚ÄúI kind of waited until the second half against Arkansas before I started getting aggressive and looking for my shot more,‚ÄĚ Bueckers said. ‚ÄúI think that was a part of what cost us the game so I was really huge on that coming into this game.‚ÄĚ
Bueckers ranks third in the Big East in scoring (18.5), first in assists (5.7), third in steals (2.5), and fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3).
She is the only player in the league in the top six in field-goal percentage (fourth at 55.0), 3-point percentage (second, 54.8), and free-throw percentage (sixth, 81.3).
No wonder Auriemma is on her to shoot the ball more.
‚ÄúMy team wants me to be more aggressive and Coach wants me to be more aggressive,‚ÄĚ Bueckers said. ‚ÄúSo I continue to look for my shot even when I‚Äôm missing. I always have to have that mentality the next one is going to go in. I try to stay with it in that regards.‚ÄĚ
With February now here, more challenges await. St. John‚Äôs and Marquette are on the schedule for this week and their best players are their guards. Then a week from today, South Carolina visits Gampel Pavilion for what should be a Top-10 matchup.
They should be fun to watch, even if it‚Äôs only on television.