UConn frosh Paige Bueckers leads women’s AP All-America team

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FILE – Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers, right, dances over to teammates while celebrating an NCAA college basketball game win in the Big East tournament finals against Marquette at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn, in this Monday, March 8, 2021, file photo. Bueckers has made The Associated Press All-America first team, announced Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Paige Bueckers came to Connecticut with a lot of hype surrounding her.

The freshman guard has lived up to it so far, delivering record-breaking performances and earning a spot on The Associated Press women’s basketball All-American team Wednesday. She’s only the third freshman to make the AP team, joining Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris and UConn’s Maya Moore.

Bueckers received 28 first place votes from the national panel of 30 media members that vote each week in the AP Top 25 poll. She was joined by Dana Evans of Louisville, Aliyah Boston of South Carolina, Rhyne Howard of Kentucky and NaLyssa Smith of Baylor.

“Name one player that has taken a team this young to where we are today,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Who’s done more than her? And if you can give me a better argument, then I would say I’ll vote for them, too. But I don’t think you can.”

Bueckers averaged 19.7 points, 6.1 assists and shot nearly 54% from the field and a remarkable 47% from 3-point range. She became the first UConn player to score 30 or more points in three straight games, including a 31-point effort against South Carolina. She also set the school record for assists in a game (14) and the freshman mark.

“You see some of the things that Paige does with the ball, and you realize that if somebody told you she was a senior, you wouldn’t be surprised,” Auriemma said. “She handles the ball like one and she sees the floor like one.”

Evans was a key to Louisville’s regular-season ACC championship. She averaged 20 points and saved her best effort for the fourth quarter when she consistently would take over games to give the Cardinals the victory. She shot 92% from the free throw line.

“It’s a kid who’s worked from day one, trusted the process, came here as a freshman and played important minutes on the team that went to the Final Four but wasn’t the focal point,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “As her career evolved, more responsibility came and she stepped up to it each and every year.”

Boston had a solid sophomore season for the Gamecocks, averaging 13.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and blocking 2.8 shots a game. She was a key reason that the Gamecocks won the SEC Tournament.

“We talked about (Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson) in the same breath in their sophomore years. (Aliyah) is in the conversation by far,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “Some things she does better, honestly, being able to communicate and defensively I think overall she sees a lot more than Alaina and A’ja saw. … We’re asking Aliyah to do it all. Be a passer, scorer, rebounder, defender, be all things and she’s handled it extremely well.”

Out of the five players, only Howard was a first-team All-American last season. Evans and Boston earned second-team honors in 2020.

Howard had a strong junior year, averaging 20.7 points and 2.3 steals for the Wildcats. She became the school’s first women’s basketball All-American last season.

“I think what makes Rhyne special is she can play the one through the five on both ends of the floor,” Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said. “She also makes the people around her better, upping her averages this year in rebounding, assists and steals.”

Smith has been a key reason for Baylor’s continued success. The junior forward led the team in scoring and rebounding as the Lady Bears won their 11th regular-season Big 12 title in a row. She averaged 18.1 points and shot 54% from the field.

“This year she started out, I felt like trying to to just be a big-time scoring player and maybe sometimes feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “She finally realized, I’m on a good team and I’m going to shine and I’m going to relax here and I’m going to start shooting the basketball better. She’s just an athlete.”

The second team was headlined by N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane. She was joined by Naz Hillmon, who is the first women’s player at Michigan to earn All-America honors. Aari McDonald of Arizona was on the second team for the second straight year. Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark, who led the nation in scoring and Charli Collier of Texas rounded out the squad.

The third team was Oklahoma State’s Natasha Mack, Maryland’s Ashley Owusu, UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere, Stanford’s Kiana Williams and Arkansas’ Chelsea Dungee.

Howard, Evans, Onyenwere, Boston and McDonald made up the preseason All-America team.

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