Bueckers, Connecticut Defeat Gopher Women 62-44, But Optimism Remains

More than 10,000 women’s basketball fans converged on Williams Arena to see Minnesota native and 2021 college player of the year Paige Bueckers return to her home state with her Connecticut Huskies. The Huskies shot (for them) a mediocre 44% from the field and gave up 16 offensive rebounds, but outlasted the Gophers 62-44. Connecticut outscored Minnesota just 41-38 in the 1st, 2nd and 4th periods combined (the Gophers trailed just 26-23 at the half), but the Huskies pulled away with a 14-0 run and a 21-6 overall edge in the 3rd period.

It was a game that UConn coach Geno Auriemma was “glad” that the Gophers agreed to play, according to a Hartford newspaper. The game was scheduled as a homecoming for Bueckers, of course, but Auriemma’s point was that the game was scheduled by former Gopher coach Lindsay Whalen, since replaced by Dawn Plitzuweit. Auriemma noted that another game, scheduled under the same circumstances and for the same reasons but at a different school, was cancelled by the host school, whom Auriemma declined to name.

In any event, the spotlight was on Bueckers more than it was on the home team, even among local fans and, despite being hobbled by injuries for almost 2 years, Bueckers was almost her old self. Her athleticism remained in her 8 rebounds, 4 assists and even 2 blocked shots, and she made a respectable 4-of-7 2-point shots. She missed on all 5 of her 3-pointers, however, and finished with 12 points. With the passage of time, 6-3 senior Aaliyah Edwards has become UConn’s best player and she showed it yesterday with 16 points, 9 boards, 2 assists and 2 steals. Recently, she has looked more and more like the homonymous (well, there is that extra “a,” I suppose) former South Carolina and now WNBA superstar Aliyah Boston. The Gophers had nobody that could compete with Edwards on the low block and, in fact, Connecticut dominated in points in the paint 32-14.

While UConn’s offense was described as “stagnant” by the UConn newspaper, the Gophers’ offense was running uphill in the mud all day, making just 6-of-34 (17%) 3s and what is almost a worse 11-of-31 (35%) 2s. The lack of offensive efficiency was especially evident in the following numbers: The Gophers had 14 offensive rebounds to Connecticut’s 9, yet the Huskies had the edge, 10-8, in 2nd chance points. The turnover story was even more lopsided. The Gophers had 12 turnovers, UConn 13, yet UConn had the edge in points off turnovers, 12-5. Just imagine, if the Gophers had had a 22-13 edge instead of a 22-13 deficit in these 2 categories, the game would have been tied at 53.

Still, one sub-text was (perhaps) that the Gophers are a team on the way up, Connecticut a team that is on the way down. The Bueckers era has not gone Connecticut’s way, though of course Bueckers’ recurring knee injuries have not helped. Still, after 11 national titles in 22 years (1995-2016), UConn has now gone 7 years without another title and with losses in the Final Four to Notre Dame (twice), Mississippi State, Arizona and South Carolina. Even in Bueckers’ player of the year season of 2021, UConn was upset by Arizona in the national semis. In 2022, Bueckers was in and out of the lineup due to 2 knee surgeries, and was probably playing at no more than 75% in UConn’s loss to South Carolina in the national final. Last year, with Bueckers out the entire season, the Huskies lost to Ohio State in the Sweet 16. They’ve got a lot to prove in 2024, but with an early season upset loss at NC State, they dropped from #2 to #8 in the rankings, and their “stagnant” offense against the Gophers did not especially impress. Still, it would arguably be foolish to bet against a team that features coach Geno Auriemma, Paige Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards, especially in light of the early-season issues at the defending national champions, the obnoxious LSU Tigers.

Meanwhile, the Gophers under 1st year coach Dawn Plitzuweit cannot be said to have played well yesterday, and yet hopes continue to rise. Lindsay Whalen’s Big 4 recruiting class of Amaya Battle (formerly a high school teammate of Bueckers at Hopkins), Mara Braun (a high school conference and section opponent of Bueckers at Wayzata), Mallory Heyer (Chaska) and Niamaya Holloway (a high school conference opponent of Bueckers at Eden Prairie) remains intact, though Holloway had knee surgery, too (and received an encouraging email from none other than Paige Bueckers). (One report noted that when Hopkins, with Bueckers and Battle, defeated Wayzata and Braun in a section final one year, 10 future D1 players took the floor.)

Meanwhile, the Gophers’ supporting cast so far looks vastly deeper and more capable than a year ago. Or, does it?  Yesterday, against a serious competitor (that is, UConn), it is true that Plitzuweit saw fit to give her bench just 13 minutes of playing time and they were able to contribute just 2 points on 1-of-4 shooting, so perhaps I should have said that the Gophers’ depth remains a work in progress. Only time will tell.

Still, 2025 recruits Tori McKinney (from Minnetonka) and Kenna Johnson (from Wisconsin) also look like future contributors and Minnesota continues to produce bunches of D1 talent every year. Plitzuweit only needs to get one or 2 more such players to come to Minnesota each year to become a respectable program, or better . So, after a 31-56 Big 10 record over Whalen’s 5 seasons as Gopher coach (not at all coincidentally the worst record since before Lindsay’s own playing days), things are looking up for the Gophers, and the loss to Connecticut has done little to dampen the optimism.