Hopkins Star Worth Admission Price
I admit to being cranky yesterday morning. I took a couple of steps out the front door and onto the sidewalk, and I immediately realized ice skates could provide a steadier walk to the garage than my shoes.
I gingerly made my way through the fog, found the garage and began driving toward Williams Arena—an expected trek of 30 minutes or less. About 55 minutes later my car was parked a couple blocks from the arena, but I was not pleased with the long journey that included stretches of 10 miles per hour traffic on north-bound 35W.
I arrived at Williams Arena about 9:30 a.m. without a media credential to watch the Class 4A Hopkins-Lakeville North quarterfinals girls’ state high school basketball tournament game. It’s been a long time since I paid my way into watch a pro, college or prep game in this town.
But guess what?
That $16 admission was money well spent. I had come to see the tourney favorite, 29-0 Hopkins, and the Royals’ phenom point guard, Paige Bueckers. Among those having a look at the extraordinarily gifted Bueckers was an assistant coach for the storied Connecticut women’s program. Legendary head coach Geno Auriemma, who practically wins NCAA titles like some people win conference crowns, has come to watch Bueckers many times.
The whole college basketball world wants the talented yet unselfish Bueckers to play hoops at their schools. Bueckers, a slightly built 6-foot-1 junior, is known as the best point guard in America’s high school class of 2020. This week she was a finalist for and just missed out on being selected the Gatorade Girls Basketball National Player of the Year. She was Gatorade’s Minnesota Player of the Year and the Star Tribune chose her as Metro Player of the Year this week—the second consecutive year the newspaper has honored her with the award.
Yesterday Bueckers performed like someone who receives that kind of attention in her team’s 68-46 win over Lakeville North. In 30 minutes on the floor she made 10 of 12 field goal attempts and eight of 10 free throws. She scored a game high 29 points while not forcing things to happen, and she could have totaled 40 had she not played so unselfishly. At one point the Hopkins student section let loose with chants of “MVP!”
Hers is a mystical style of play where she seems to spontaneously and naturally do the right thing, be in the right place—all while flowing with what is happening on the court. After the game yesterday Bueckers told Sports Headliners that she has a “God given ability that I know what I am doing, and I see…plays two steps ahead.”
Brian Cosgriff has been the Hopkins head coach for 20 years. His former great players include Nia Coffey who helped produce three state championships for the Royals. How do Coffey and Bueckers compare? Who is the best prep player Cosgriff has coached?
Cosgriff referred to Bueckers as the “most skilled” prep player he has had. Coffey is the best athlete. Then he said, “It’s like the age old debate, who is better (Michael) Jordan or LeBron (James)?”
Bueckers’ total profile includes sound fundamentals that even on defense make her a pleasure to watch. She doesn’t reach for the ball when she shouldn’t and she keeps her feet on the floor instead of jumping out of position. “Her feet are always in the right spot,” a Hopkins fan and Bueckers admirer said during the game.
The Royals were the dominant team yesterday, out scoring North by 12 points in the first half and 10 in the second. The one-sided game had the North student section yelling “Let’s play football” in reference to the school’s powerhouse 2018 team.
Cosgriff’s heart, though, may have skipped a beat early in the second half when Bueckers started limping and went to the bench for a short while. She was favoring her left knee and Cosgriff hopes his star player will be available for tonight’s semifinal tournament game against Centennial.
Bueckers dismissed the possibility of the injury preventing her from playing tonight. Understandably, Cosgriff was more cautious, indicative of how coaches take on a lot of worry during a lose and go home format like the state tournament.
Cosgriff has won six state titles. However, the Royals have also lost three consecutive state championship finals games. Bueckers, on the varsity since eighth grade, has experienced those crushing losses.
A determination to change that burns in Bueckers who said she thinks about winning the championship all the time. She uses words like energy and passion when discussing what it takes to be the best team possible. The drive and commitment to win is so evident.
Seemingly well liked by teammates, Bueckers feels a responsibility to lead a young roster and let more inexperienced players know even a single possession in a game could ultimately determine the Royals’ fate. “I’ve been thinking about it (the state title) three years in a row now…but I believe that we’ve worked so hard this year, and I think we can get it,” she said.
Bueckers wants to win for herself, teammates and “really bad” for Cosgriff who not only put a talented and balanced team on the floor yesterday but one that executed assignments while performing with focus and determination. “We want it for each other,” Bueckers said. “That’s the thing about this team. We’re so close. We’ve gone through ups and downs with each other but at the end of the day we stuck as one—so we want it so bad.”
Bueckers has already played on three USA basketball teams that have won gold medals. A state title this year and next would close out an almost fantasy prep career of team and individual recognition. Along the way Connecticut, Notre Dame, Minnesota or some other college will win the Bueckers recruitment process with a commitment. A verbal commitment, she said, could certainly come before starting her senior year at Hopkins.
The Gophers under new head coach Lindsay Whalen have talked to Bueckers about becoming a “hometown hero” by choosing Minnesota. Bueckers smiled at the mention of being a transformational player for the Gophers, but she didn’t give away any secrets as to who she favors among college choices. No, because right now she is focused on how she can help the Royals go a perfect 32-0 and snap that state title slump.
As for me, after watching the game, and talking with Bueckers and Cosgriff, I left Williams Arena and headed for the home office. The fog had lifted and so had my cranky outlook.