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Despite lofty accolades, Paige Bueckers remains focused on bringing state title back to Hopkins

By Jim Paulsen, Star Tribune, 12/04/17, 7:15PM CST

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The sophomore could finish her high school career known as the state's best player ever, but she hopes to be remembered for helping end the Royals' championship drought.

Hopkins' Paige Bueckers (1) looked for an open teammate as she took the ball up the court during a game against Centennial Saturday. ANTHONY SOUFFLE • anthony.souffle@startribune.com

Hopkins' Paige Bueckers has the attention of top-tier college programs such as UConn, but the Royals sophomore has her eyes set on winning the Class 4A state title this year. Star Tribune photo by Anthony Souffle

Geno Auriemma has become a familiar face at Hopkins High School’s Lindbergh Center, having stopped by three times in recent months, most recently on the first official day of girls’ basketball practices.

The reason the legendary UConn coach has beaten a path to Hopkins door is a 6-foot tall point guard who’s a bit on the slender side, walks with a bounce in her step, handles a basketball like a yo-yo, slides effortlessly through traffic and is magic from outside the three-point line.

It’s all about sophomore guard Paige Bueckers, who is likely, when her high school career wraps up in 2020, to be one of the best girls’ basketball players Minnesota has produced.

“The best player I’ve ever seen was Tayler Hill,” said Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff, referring to the former Minneapolis South star. “I never saw Geno here for Tayler. That’s when I started thinking I had something special here.”

Bueckers, a gym rat who subsists on a steady diet of basketball, is as comfortable on the court as she is in her own home. If she’s not playing, she’s practicing and training, often by herself. And when she’s not training, she’s observing.

“I’m always thinking about basketball,” Bueckers said. “I’ll scout other teams. When I’m at home, I’m watching it – high school, college, pros – whenever I can.”

Just how good is Bueckers? She spent a good chunk of her summer playing with Team USA’s Women’s U16 team. She averaged 11 points, tied for second-best on the team, for a team that won the FIBA Americas Championship in Argentina.

But while she’s travelled the globe and has iconic coaches regularly showing up to watch her, one thing is never far from her thoughts: Hopkins has lost the last two Class 4A championship games, to Minnetonka in 2016 and Elk River in 2017. The incessant sting of those defeats are prodding motivation.

“I think about losing two times in the state tournament all the time,” she said. “That loss at the end of last season hurts the most. That never goes away.”

Not surprisingly, Hopkins is once again considered a favorite in Class 4A. The Royals opened the season atop the Class 4A state rankings and made a statement with an 84-68 victory over highly regarded Centennial on Saturday in the Breakdown Tip Off Classic.

The Royals have their usual wealth of talent: Senior Angie Hammond is long and lean and quick to the basket, junior Dlayla Chakolis is an undersized rebounding machine (“Our Charles Barkley,” Cosgriff says) and mercurial guard Raena Suggs has the quickest first step in the metro, which allows her to clear space to get off her deadly three-point shot.

This year, however, it all centers around Bueckers. Cosgriff has entrusted her with the point guard position, a role for which she’s well-suited, considering her remarkable skill set.

“That means getting everybody involved, getting rebounds from the guard position, just making everybody else’s job easier,” she said.

For Cosgriff, a moment in Hopkins’ season-opening victory over Becker stuck in his mind as evidence of her aptitude for the role.

“We brought in our eighth-grade guard and right away, Paige and I looked at each other and we knew exactly what to run,” he recalled. “We didn’t have to say anything. We just had that synergy. It was a really cool feeling.”

It’s a testament to Bueckers’ basketball IQ that her biggest weakness is her willingness to leave what little ego she has on the bench.

“Some days, I have to get on her because she’s not shooting enough,” Cosgriff said. “She’s one of the most unselfish players we’ve ever had come through here. When she’s out there, everyone’s running better and things are working faster and smoother on the court.”

Auriemma has told Cosgriff “she’s ahead of Diana Taurasi at the same point in time in her career.” Yet, for the next few months, Bueckers’ dazzling future will take a back seat to trying to help her home school get over its recent state championship game mountain.

“When I was with [Team] USA, I was gone for three-and-a-half weeks, so I missed home a little,” she said. “High school is like a family. The relationships with coaches and teammates, it feels like home. Our team chemistry works really well together. It doesn’t matter what my stats are or anything like that. I just want to do everything I can to help us win.”

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