JALEN SUGGS PACES in front of the television in his hotel room in Provo, Utah. The minutes and seconds are ticking away in Storrs, Connecticut, for the nationally televised Gonzaga men’s basketball game on the 8th. February starts against BYU.
Suggs wore out the carpet in the hotel room. He started watching the UConn game via streaming on his iPad, but the younger Gonzaga should actually watch the game. He has to move. I had to get up and look, Suggs said.
The #2 UConn women led #1 South Carolina by one point with one minute left in overtime. This is Bucher’s most important game of the season. Her shoes creaked on the floor of the Gampel pavilion as she left the screen. The Huskies’ guard has scored eight points in a row for UConn, and everyone – including Suggs – knows the ball is going the other way.
The Buccaneers intercept a pass on the right wing and dribble behind the ball screen to midfield. He gets just inside the three-point line and makes a jumper. The Huskies lead 60-59.
With 41 seconds left, Suggs turns between the bed and the TV. His eyes follow Bucher’s as he drives onto the field for UConn’s final ball.
With eight seconds left on the shot clock, Buchers goes to the basket. The Gamecocks’ defense collapsed and she drove past Olivia Nelson-Ododa at the free throw line before running back to the top of the key. With four seconds on the clock and 14 in the game, Buchers intercepted a panicked pass from Nelson-Ododa, planted his feet and smiled for the 3-pointer. The ball bounced off the back of the rim, swung in the air over the backboard and finally landed in the net with 10.8 seconds to go.
Suggs yells at the TV and grabs his phone to send Snap to Bewker. UConn won 63-59 and their miracle shot was on his TV. You’re a real winner! Suggs yells into his phone, holding it up so Buchers can see his face. He’s just laughing. Enjoy the game! I’m so proud of you.
He’s heading for the door. Buchers has done his job, now it’s time to do his. Two hours later, Suggs scored 24 points in Gonzaga’s 11-point win over the Cougars in a high-scoring game.
Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers had sensational rookie seasons with Gonzaga and UConn winning national championships. Separated by thousands of miles, the friends kept in touch via text messages and photos. ESPN
Before they were thousands of miles apart, before they became two of the most exciting basketball players in the country, Jalen Suggs and Paige Buchers were little kids who shared the same dreams growing up in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area in the Twin Cities. Paul.
During endless games 21 at the Suggs’ family barbecue or sipping milkshakes side by side, they discovered a common truth: When the game is on the line and the lights are brightest, they want the ball in their hands.
That truth has never been more important than today, on the eve of the 2021 NCAA basketball tournament. Suggs, who is expected to be the best player in the NBA in 2021, wants to give the undefeated and top-seeded Gonzaga the first national championship in the program’s history. And Buchers, who had one of the most productive freshman seasons in UConn history, is looking to bring the title to Storrs for the first time since 2016 and 12th time overall. Over the next three weeks and for years to come, the genius of Minnesota basketball will be on display across the country.
Gonzaga and Suggs open their tournament on Saturday against the winner of Appalachian State and Norfolk State. UConn and the Bueckers begin their journey Sunday against High Point.
From grade school to AAU, to superstardom in high school and enrollment at basketball schools across the country, this is the story of a phenomenal freshman friendship that fuels March Madness.
Paige Buchers and Jaylen Suggs grew up in Minnesota and discovered that they both wanted the ball in their hands at the most important times. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sports Wire/Getty Images
Suggs and Bookerach, born 139 days ago and 20 miles apart in an area better known for hockey, the giant mall and Paul Bunyan, wasted no time in building their own local legends – in basketball.
Remember the game where Bunkers… was in the second grade. She was already playing with kids a few levels older because she was too good to play with her peers. His father, Bob, was a coach. It was overtime, they scored a couple of baskets and Buchers was on the bench. So Bob did what any coach would do, he put in his best player. But there was a problem: It was a relegation game, and according to the relegation rules, all the kids had to play at exactly the same time. And of course, Buchers has already reached his peak. Bob had no idea.
The opposing coach noticed the referees. You can’t do that! he said.
So Bob took his daughter out of the game. She approached the bench with tears in her eyes. I must be in the game, she said.
His will to win was so strong that Bob then said.
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Suggs started jumping on a Fisher-Price mini-band that his dad bought him when he was 2. He stood with his feet on the line where his father marked the free throw line and fired shot after shot. This boy is 2 1/2 years old and he was just sitting there jumping, Larry Suggs said. And you know the circle on one of those tapes. Not much room for error.
The stories of Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers naturally converge on the basketball court when they are both in grade school. Suggs played on a team with a close friend of Buecker’s, and she went with her to practice, sometimes directly. The Buchers mimicked the drills the boys did on their own basket. She went to his classes. She liked it there, Suggs said.
Their friendship was formed during those practices and on the sidelines of AAU tournaments, and blossomed as they grew and each received more attention. Their basketball careers run remarkably parallel. First, as young children who will play for years to come. Then, as eighth graders, they played against two of the top basketball programs in the state, the Minnehaha Academy Suggs and the Hopkins High School Bueckers. Then came American basketball, five-star rankings and awards. Many honors.
Suggs was the Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year in football and basketball as a senior. Buchers won three consecutive Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year awards and was named National Player of the Year as a senior. Together they have four state basketball titles and seven USA Basketball gold medals. Both participated in the Steph Curry SC30 Select Camp as seniors and sat next to each other on the plane to the Bay Area. Suggs was named the best male player of the camp; Bueckers was named the best female player.
Jalen Suggs starred in both football as a quarterback and high school basketball. It was much harder to drag Paige Buchers off the basketball court. Polite Amy Fuller
When Bookers shows up at Suggs’ house, she rarely knocks. She just comes in and sits with Suggs on the couch or looks for him in his room. She annoyed her younger sisters, Jaelle, 13, and Jennica, 15, by pulling a chair out from under them when they tried to sit down. She was there from the beginning, Suggs said, as part of my family.
They can sit there without talking, Jennica said, and yet they look like they’re having fun.
The Suggs family loves to put food on the grill. Hamburgers and sausages – the upper Midwest – with macaroni and cheese and potatoes. And as often as food is served, a ball bounces in the garden. Rarely declared a winner. They never finish the game, Jaelle says. When it ends, someone will be angry. And then they have to take revenge, and that’s a long ordeal.
Talking trash is as important as sausages on the grill. It doesn’t matter where they play.
During a match at a Minnehaha student’s home, Suggs tells the Buchers he’s going to make the big move. As he dribbles, she pecks at his pocket. She drops into a corner and raises her feet. Just before she shoots him, she kisses him.
And the emptiness.
Jalen Suggs, a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has had plenty of competition in Minnesota – sometimes even in his own backyard. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sports Wire/Getty Images
It smells like Minneapolis on 3rd. January 2020 is easy, but it’s hot at Minneapolis Academy. At halftime of the nationally televised game between Sierra James Canyon of California Bronnie James and Patrick High of New Jersey, Suggs – who had just won his school’s holiday tournament – unbuttoned his red shirt to reveal a Zag Up jersey, announced his commitment to Gonzaga and instantly became the highest-ranked recruit in program history. Buchers had committed to UConn nine months earlier, becoming the third No. 1 recruit in four years to be selected by the Huskies. In a few months, there will be nearly 3,000 miles between lifelong friends. Fans from the west coast to the east coast will experience the excitement that Minnesota has had in recent years.
On the 26th. In November, Suggs will make his debut in a Gonzaga uniform against then-No. 6 Kansas in Fort Myers, Fla. He scored 24 points and had 8 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals. He was named West Coast Conference Rookie of the Week. Buchers made his debut on Dec. 12 against UMass Lowell and had 17 points, nine rebounds, five steals and five assists. She was named Big East Freshman of the Week.
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But with the arrival of winter, the distance between Spokane and Storrs becomes even greater. The current KOVID-19 pandemic is keeping Booker and Suggs on campus and with their families. UConn’s first three games of the season are canceled because of the pandemic, and Gonzaga cancels five games in early December because of coronavirus protocols. Bob, Paige’s father, tried several times to get to Storrs for the game, but each time failed due to weather or exposure to COVID-19. He’s finally coming to the South Carolina game.
Booker hasn’t been home since she left this summer. Just like Suggs. She misses sneaking out for a milkshake with Buchers, or destroying everything in her family’s house. It was difficult at times, Suggs says. They kept hitting him. It’s all over the country now.
But they open their phones and get a piece of home when they need it most.
Booker’s toughest game of the season will be on the 21st. in January against Tennessee in Knoxville. It was one of the few games where they played with a significant number of fans – 3,500 – in the stands. She has seven assists, eight rebounds and a season-high nine points on 3-of-14 shooting and 1-of-6 from the field. It would have been my fault if we had lost, Buchers said.
Suggs is there for them – on the other side of the text – after the game. He has policies to detect her aggression and shut her out, but he knows she only needs his support. She said we’d be heavier. And we know it. We both know we won’t be perfect, but we try to be as positive as we can.
The Bueckers returned the favor to Suggs, who collected just four points and an assist nine days later against Pepperdine. He returned late in the second half and played just 17 minutes. Even if it’s from a distance, Buchers is there to support his friend.
Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers have already added to their long list of accomplishments this season. But the biggest prizes are still up for grabs. Brian Rothmuller/Sportwire Icon/Getty Images
But good games – even great games – are much better than bad games. Both played their first season, each playing 24 games (and counting), and filled several columns in the stats. Suggs is averaging 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the NCAA tournament. Booker is averaging 19.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Suggs was named WCC Rookie of the Year and was named second team All-American by the Associated Press, while Bueckers was named Big East Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year and was named to the AP All-American first team.
It helps you lean on the fact that they are going through the same thing I am, Bewackers says. He’s my biggest fan and I’m his biggest fan.
Ball in the Minnehaha Gym. Verification.
The next point wins, Suggs says.
A group of boys went to a small gym, and Buechners and Suggs had to deliver a dish. It’s now April 2020 and the KOVID-19 pandemic stopped on its own about a month ago after I heard about it. None of them finished the season they thought they would. The Bookers were supposed to play in the championship game, but it was cancelled. Suggs’ season ended just after his team won the sectional championship.
Here they are in this gym, two rising stars who are just a few months away from the other coast. They traded baskets throughout the game. Whatever Suggs does, the Buchers can’t miss. Hook shots, runner on, 17 foot fadeaway with a hand to the face. Kick after kick after kick. She’s never hit him before, but this may be the only time she does.
Next year, Jaylen Suggs is expected to play with Stephen Curry in the NBA and Paige Buchers will return to UConn to work with Azzi Fudd. First, friends share the bright light that is March Madness. Thanks to Amy Fuller.
Bewackers hits him with a left. As Suggs leans in a bit, she drops a right. She only has three before she has to shoot. She uses her second dribble to cover, and Suggs bites. She knows she should hit him without hesitation and leave, but she sees the opening too late. Instead, she picks up the ball and takes a long shot. It narrows at the edge. Suggs grabs the rebound and scores on his next possession.
She talked about it for the rest of the day, Suggs said. She still talks about it.
That’s one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made, Buchers said. I think about it when I go to sleep. I will beat him next time, and I want people to know that.
The fire of competition is what they get from each other. Whether they’re playing one-on-one, practicing shooting or playing Fortnite. And that motivation fuels her desire for a national championship, not only at each of her schools, but also at home in Minnesota.
She will be an inspiration to all the kids and girls at home who look up to her, Suggs says. Look at me.
The best players, according to Buchers, shine at the most important moments.
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