It was destined to be known as The Paige Bueckers Game long before the Hopkins native and her Connecticut Huskies tipped off against the Gophers on Sunday at Williams Arena. But by the time it was over, and No. 8 Connecticut pulled away for a 62-44 victory, it actually turned out to be a fan appreciation day.
Bueckers, UConn coach Gino Auriemma and Gophers coach Dawn Plitzuweit all saluted the announced crowd of 10,869 that came out to welcome a returning star and to watch one of the storied programs in women’s college basketball up close, but also to support the Gophers.
As Plitzuweit pointed out, “There was a lot of maroon and gold in that room.”
The turnout meant so much to the Gophers’ first-year coach that she grabbed a microphone after the final buzzer, thanked everyone for coming and invited them back.
The announced crowd ranks 20th all time in Gophers women’s history. It was their largest crowd since January 1, 2007, when the Gophers drew 11,121 in a win over Wisconsin.
The impetus, of course, was Bueckers, the former top recruit in the nation. The 6-foot redshirt junior, back in action after missing all of last season with a torn knee ligament, estimated that she had 100 family and friends in attendance.
“It was surreal in a way,” Bueckers said of the experience. “But it was amazing support. Minnesota has done so much for me, so for me to be able to play in this environment was really cool. Fun atmosphere, fun to play in — and I’m glad we won.”
Auriemma has a longstanding tradition of saluting his national recruits by scheduling a game in their hometown. He set the game up with former Gophers coach Lindsay Whalen a couple of years ago, and he thanked Plitzuweit and the Minnesota administration for not canceling it after the coaching change.
“A lot of schools will tell you, ‘Hey, if that kid wanted to play here she should have gone to our school,’ ” Auriemma said. “We had another instance with another school where the minute they changed coaches they got out of the contract.
“So now you get (11,000) people in here to see Dawn’s team play, and they say, ‘Hey, these kids are pretty good.’ ”
Plitzuweit admitted that “the thought crossed her mind” to cancel the game, but in the end she decided playing it was the right thing to do.
“It will help us,” she said. “It ended up being a really good situation.”
A bonus for Auriemma was the chance to renew some old acquaintances.
“I got to know a lot of people when I came up here to recruit Paige,” he said. “I probably should have rented an apartment, I saw so many games that Paige played in her high school career.
“So I was able to see some people I haven’t seen in a long time, and I know they were excited to see Paige play.”
Bueckers, who entered the game off of a 24-point, six-steal performance against Maryland, was not as dominant against the Gophers, finishing with 16 points and eight rebounds and four assists. Auriemma said the homecoming games aren’t easy for the player who everyone “is going gaga over.”
“They put so much pressure on themselves to play great,’ Auriemma said. “You heard Paige say that something is surreal — she played in the national championship game (at Target Center). Something like this is pretty overwhelming for a kid.”
The Gophers, who suffered their first loss of the season after three wins, made a game of it for one half, before UConn (3-1) broke the game open in the third quarter, outscoring the Gophers 20-6.
The Gophers were plagued by poor shooting from the start, finishing 17 of 65 from the field (26.2 percent), including 6 of 34 from 3-point range.
Gophers leading scorer Mara Braun, who entered the game averaging 21 points a game, was limited to 12 points, most of which came after the game was out of reach. She was 4 for 21 from the floor, including 2 of 11 from three.
The Gophers only trailed 11-9 after the first quarter despite shooting 19 percent. Braun was 0 of 10, including 0 of 5 from 3-point range. Forward Mallory Heyer had seven of the Gophers’ nine points.
The Gophers’ shooting improved slightly in the second quarter (29.4 percent), with Braun getting her first basket — a three — after 11 misses. The Gophers made 3 of 8 3-point attempts in the quarter and went to the locker room after halftime trailing 26-23.
UConn went on a 7-2 run after the start of the third quarter to take a 33-25 lead, leading Plitzuweit to calling a timeout. But the Huskies stretched their lead to 41-25 with two minutes to play in the quarter and entered the fourth leading 46-29.
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