Paige Bueckers didn't come to UConn to win individual accolades, though she's won or is being considered for plenty of them just 21 games into her young career: She's a Nancy Lieberman award finalist, a Naismith Trophy semifinalist and, as of Thursday, the Big East player and freshman of the year, joining UConn great Maya Moore as the only players in league history to do so.
She's grateful for the recognition, she says, but that's not what she's concerned about.
"I care strictly about winning," Bueckers said Thursday, "and just about making our team better each and every day in practice and in games."
Bueckers has a lot to do with how the No. 1 UConn Huskies have won 21 of their 22 games this season despite graduating their top two players from last year and bringing into the fold eight newcomers. Still, the biggest stages are on the horizon, starting with this weekend's conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena.
"At the end of the day, the three awards I want to get are the regular season Big East championship, the Big East tournament championship and a national championship. We've got one of those down, and we're working towards two more."
In their first year back in the Big East, the Huskies cleaned up o n the rest of the regular season awards: Geno Auriemma won Big East coach of the year for the 11th time (overall his 17th conference coach of the year honor); freshman forward Aaliyah Edwards won sixth woman of the year and was a unanimous pick to the conference all-freshman team; junior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa won co-defensive player of the year alongside Marquette's Selena Lott and was an All-Big East second team pick; and junior guard Christyn Williams was an unanimous All-Big East first team selection.
Bueckers, who won the freshman of the year award unanimously, was additionally an unanimous pick to the all-Big East first team and freshman squad. She was declared Big East freshman of the week eight times and conference player of the week twice, averaging 19.8 points, 6.2 assists and 2.4 steals on the season — all team-highs for the Huskies, who went undefeated in conference play and won their league contests by an average of 33.9 points.
The freshman from Hopkins became the 16th UConn player to win a conference player of the year award and will have the opportunity to make her case for national accolades as the team progresses into March. Not that Auriemma wants her to play with those in mind.
"I'm just going to remind her that she just needs to help our team win, whatever that entails," Auriemma said. "I'm not going to tell her she has to prove she's a player of the year. I'm not going to have to tell her she has to live up to some outside expectations or she's got to do super-human stuff. Just going to remind her that when it's all said and done, you just got to help us figure out how to win this game. And then say it again for the next game and hopefully the next game and leave it at that."
Of course, Bueckers can't and is not expected to do it all alone, and she has an increasingly robust group around her to help the team achieve its national title goals. Among the other Big East honorees, Williams' 15.4 points per game are good for the second-best scoring average of the team, while Nelson-Ododa (13.0) comes in at third.
On the defensive end, Nelson-Ododa holds down the paint for the Huskies, where UConn opponents average only 21.3 points per game. The junior center also grabs 7.7 rebounds and blocks 1.8 shots per contest. Despite coming off the bench, Edwards' 10.7 scoring average is fourth-best on the team, while her 5.4 rebounds per game are second.
In the Huskies' eyes, two of their players may have been under-appreciated: Auriemma, for one, made a case for Nelson-Ododa to make first team All-Big East.
"When you look at her production and you look at what she's done all year long, you would say, 'wow, there's nine other players in the league that had a better year than she did and contributed more to a team as good as ours?'" Auriemma said. "I think she's been incredibly consistent and in her effort and consistent in her approach. And she's a big part of what we're going to do going forward."
Meanwhile, Bueckers passionately argued that Evina Westbrook (who was left off all the teams) "deserves every award there could be."
"If I could give awards, she would have mine," Bueckers said. "She's our MVP, our do-everything person — this is on and off the court. She sacrifices her time, her money, her energy into just doing little things for us off the court. She's our leader, she's our talking person, she's our motivator, she's our energy-giver. She does everything for this team. I can't stress enough how important she is for this team."