Preview: Paige Bueckers highlights UConn’s return

Paige Bueckers
Paige Bueckers (facing) hopes to bring a 12th national championship to Storrs, Conn. | Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Paige Bueckers and her UConn Husky teammates are anxious to get back on the court. Can she and Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook add enough talent to the Huskies’ roster to return a national championship to Storrs? It all starts with their season opener against the UMass Lowell River Hawks on Saturday.

The UConn Huskies were on pause for the first week and a half of the season due to a positive COVID-19 test within their program, which did not come from a player or coach.

The Huskies have not played a game yet, but that will change Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET when they host the UMass Lowell River Hawks.

It will be the highly-anticipated collegiate debut of UConn freshman Paige Bueckers, the No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit in the Class of 2020. It will also be the UConn debut of Tennessee Lady Volunteers transfer Evina Westbrook who did not play last season because of NCAA eligibility rules.

ESPN reported Husky head coach Geno Auriemma saying the following after the pause to the season’s start was announced:

I have tremendous empathy for my players. When we talked yesterday about us having to put a pause on this, I felt really guilty that it was happening to them. They came back at me with, ‘Coach, these things are out of our control. And we’ll come back from this and we’ll deal with it, and we’re going to be even better than we were before going into it.’ So as far as kids being resilient? Yeah.

Westbrook later said of the pause:

We’re making sure that we are watching games, especially teams that we have a great potential of playing against. I think, if anything, it gives us a different perspective of how we want to play and how we don’t want to look.

UConn remained at No. 3 in the national rankings during its pause. With the cancellation of its scheduled Dec. 4 game against the Louisville Cardinals, it missed out on an opportunity to rise to No. 1.

A win over the then-No. 5 Cardinals would have been huge. And with the previously No. 1-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks losing and the now-No. 1 Stanford Cardinal not playing any ranked teams yet, UConn would have had a case to be No. 1 in the Dec. 7 poll.

Instead, Stanford moved up to No. 1 and Louisville surpassed the idle Huskies to claim the No. 2 spot after defeating the then-No. 20 DePaul Blue Demons in blowout fashion.

Now it is time for UConn to start making its case as one of the best teams in the country and it should easily defeat UMass Lowell (0-1). The River Hawks’ loss was by 50 points to the Boston College Eagles on Dec. 6, so expect Lowell to have even more trouble with UConn, though it was picked to finish third out of the 10 teams in the America East conference.

Junior guard Kharis Idom, who led the River Hawks in scoring last year, notched team highs with 11 points and four assists against BC. In addition to Idom, Lowell is fortunate to return its third- through sixth-best scorers from last year — Jaliena Sanchez, Denise Solis, Kaylen Banwaresingh and Shamyjha Price — all of whom are now sophomores.

Meanwhile, UConn returns Big East Preseason Player of the Year Christyn Williams, up-and-coming star center Olivia Nelson-Ododa and sharpshooter Anna Makurat to complement Westbrook and Bueckers, the last of whom is one of six freshmen on a young but talented roster.

Game Information

UMass Lowell River Hawks (0-1, 0-0 America East) vs. No. 3 UConn Huskies (0-0, 0-0 Big East)

When: Saturday, Dec. 12, at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, CT

How to watch/listen: SportsNet New York/Radio: 97-9 ESPN or TUNEIN

Key to the matchup: Discipline. As long as UConn can stay disciplined and not overlook Lowell, they should be able to cruise to victory.

Reason to watch: It’s Paige Bueckers’ debut and UConn is trying to get back to its dominant ways after taking a back seat to other powers the past few years.

Interview: Geno Auriemma says Paige Bueckers is not going to single-handedly win UConn a national championship