UConn's Paige Bueckers becomes first freshman named AP Player of the Year

SAN ANTONIO — UConn’s Paige Bueckers didn’t believe it at first when told she was the first freshman in women’s basketball named AP Player of the Year.

“Everybody who’s done great things at their respective programs as a freshman, just for me to be the first, it’s really surreal,” Bueckers said Wednesday, shortly after the award was announced. “It just doesn’t seem like real life right now.”

Except, it is. Believe it. It’s real. Bueckers already has been that good, that remarkable as a Husky.

She was the overwhelming choice for the prestigious award, receiving 21 of a possible 30 votes from a national media panel. Louisville’s Dana Evans was second with four votes.

“This is just something I dreamt of doing as a kid,” said Bueckers, who grew up in Minnesota. “You can’t even really dream of it because it seems so surreal. It seems too impossible.

“But I know with God on my side, anything is possible. Through Him, I can do anything that I put my mind to. I’m just super extremely grateful to be in this position.”

Last week, the 5-foot-11 guard became just the third freshman to make AP First Team All-America, joining Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris (2006) and UConn’s Maya Moore (2008).

“It’s a result of Paige’s individual excellence and what she’s done for our team in getting us here to the Final Four, and how dominant she’s been in the biggest games we’ve played,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “You take all those things into consideration and how much she impacts the game.”

Bueckers has been as good, if not better, than expected, establishing herself as a catalyst in UConn’s run to a record 13th consecutive Final Four. She leads the Huskies in scoring (20.1), assists (5.8), steals (2.3), 3-point percentage (45.9) and minutes per game (36).

And she’s shown an uncanny knack for stepping up in big moments. She scored 31 points in a win over then-No. 1 South Carolina earlier this season and has 90 through her first four NCAA Tournament games, third most by a UConn freshman behind Breanna Stewart (104) and Moore (93).

No. 1 UConn, two steps from its 12th national title, will play third-seeded Arizona in the Final Four on Friday (9:30 p.m., ESPN) at the Alamodome.

“What Paige can do is Paige can sense the moment,” Auriemma said. “Like all great players, she can sense the moment, when it’s time, what’s needed in that time, what’s necessary. And she has the ability to fulfill that moment. Not everybody does.”

Nine Huskies have won the prestigious award, some of multiple occasions: Rebecca Lobo (1995), Jen Rizzotti (1996), Kara Wolters (1997), Sue Bird (2002), Diana Taurasi (2003), Moore (2009, 2011), Tina Charles (2010) and Stewart (2014-16).

But none did it as quickly as Bueckers.

Bueckers received the trophy honoring her at a team meeting following Monday’s Elite Eight win against Baylor, in which she had a game-high 28 points. Auriemma is seen pulling the trophy out a box and walks over to hand it to her, pretending to drop it before handing it off. Bueckers asked whether she had to give a speech, to which teammates said “yes.”

“None of this would be possible without you guys and Coach,” she said before covering her face with her shirt, beginning to cry.

“Just thank you,” she continues, with a laugh before going to sit down next to teammate Nika Muhl. Before she could, Muhl embraced her and the team surrounded her for a group hug.

Bueckers previously won both Big East Player and Freshman of the Year, along with most outstanding player of the conference tournament. She was also selected to the AP and Wooden All-American teams.

“They’ve never gotten jealous or envious of anything that I’ve gotten or anybody on our team has gotten,” Bueckers said of her teammates. “They’ve always been supportive, and they’ve always been by my side backing me up and having my back. I think that’s the most important thing to me. Obviously, without them I wouldn’t get this individual award. Without the great team success I wouldn’t get this individual award.”

Maryland’s Brenda Frese was named AP Coach of the Year. The Terrapins went 26-3 and won the Big 10 title, before losing to Texas in the Sweet 16.

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour