With the big game a few days away, after she had scored a career-high 20 points against North Dakota State, Amaya Battle sat courtside at Williams Arena and talked about her friend Paige Bueckers.
Her first thoughts weren't basketball-related. Not the 2019 Class 4A state title they won together at Hopkins High School. Or about that already-legendary 2020 Section 6 final, in a Hopkins High School gym so jammed that the fire department had to limit the crowd, with Karl-Anthony Towns and some Timberwolves teammates in attendance. The Royals and a Wayzata team that included Mara Braun went toe-to-toe all game. Hopkins won, Bueckers — the top high school player in the country who would go to Connecticut — scored 33, but Braun and Wayzata pushed them.
No. Battle talked about the fall of 2021.
Amaya's mom, Stephanie, had died, suddenly. At the service, Battle was greeting people at the door when Bueckers — who had left Connecticut to come home — was there. "I remember her walking in," Battle said. "And I just lost it. That's the thing about Paige. She has a great heart. She's a great competitor on the court, and that's what most people see. But she has a great heart."
Friends. Bueckers refers to Battle as her little sister. On Saturday, she talked about taking Battle under her wing. "Me and Amaya's relationship was so much bigger than it was on the court," Bueckers said. "Obviously, it made what we did on the court easier. We became super close, inseparable. Her parents were like my parents, my parents were like her parents. We're just close."
Homecoming for Minnesota talent
The Gophers will host No. 8 UConn at Williams Arena on Sunday afternoon. This is a big game for the fledgling Dawn Plitzuweit era at the University of Minnesota, one for which more than 10,000 tickets had been sold as of Friday morning. It is a nationally televised showcase of Minnesota talent; Bueckers for UConn and Gophers sophomore starters Braun, Battle, and Mallory Heyer as well as junior transfer Sophie Hart all played high school ball in Minnesota.
Either with, or against, each other.
"It's just a good opportunity to fill out Williams Arena, especially early in our career,'' said Braun, who had a couple stitches above her right eye thanks to a stray elbow taken in the victory over NDSU. "We'll go in with intensity and fight. We'll just go in and compete. We have nothing to lose.''
There is all sorts of history here. Bueckers played with Battle, against the others. Braun, especially. Wayzata went 46-6 in Braun's final two years at Wayzata there but never beat conference rival Hopkins. In that 2020 sectional final, in a game filled with future Division I players, Braun, a sophomore, scored 27 points.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has a tradition of trying to schedule games in hometowns for his players, so Bueckers knew it was coming. She grew up wanting to play in the Barn and attended the 2017 WNBA finals there. Bueckers came back to Minnesota for the NCAA Final Four at Target Center in 2022. But this is different.
"It has a homecoming feel,'' she said.
As Plitzuweit said, there isn't much UConn — which routed Maryland on Thursday — doesn't do well. The Huskies attack, and their transition offense is a wonder. They create space, score from everywhere and put pressure on defense. They know the spotlight.
"What they do is out-discipline other teams,'' she said. "They make you play a style you're uncomfortable with. We have a great challenge ahead of us. It's a chance to grow and get better."
For the Gophers it's also a chance to see where they're at after going 3-0 against Long Island University, Chicago State and a North Dakota State team with Summit League title aspirations — and to play in a packed Barn for one of the first of what they hope are many times.
"I'm excited to have the opportunity to play in this game,'' said Nia Holloway, part of the recruiting class that also brought Braun, Battle and Heyer. Holloway missed last season with a knee injury. "This is really, really exciting."
Like Holloway, Bueckers lost last season to a knee injury. Bueckers reached out to Holloway shortly after her surgery; Holloway returned the favor when Bueckers was hurt.
Bueckers and Battle have joked from the start about the process of going from adversaries to teammates to friends at the U. Battle has been looking forward to it ever since Bueckers told her about it.
"It was announced on Twitter," Battle said. "And I'm not active on social media all the time. So she texted me, 'See you next November.' And I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' Then I saw it."
Family reunion — only after the game
In 2020-21 Bueckers became the first freshman to win the Wooden Award, the Naismith Trophy and Player of the Year by both the Associated Press and the UWBWA. In 2022 she led UConn to the Final Four. Back after rehab, this season, Bueckers is averaging 19.7 points and shooting better than 57%.
Battle was one of two players to play in every game for the Gophers last season, starting 24. Her 133 assists were most ever by a Gophers freshman. Her 4.4 assists per game led the team and was eighth in the Big Ten. She was tied for first on the team in blocks (22), third in rebounding (5.9) and fourth in scoring. This year Battle is averaging 11.3 points and 7.0 assists.
But it's more than just the competition. Battle and Bueckers are tight friends. Bueckers spent hours at Battle's house, where Stephanie would cook them pregame dinners. After games?
"My mom would be the one who would always be there for Paige," Battle said, "and they were really close."
Bueckers' great heart can be seen in the significant NIL deals she has made. Her one stipulation is that any partnership must include charity or community involvement.
"That was my dog," Battle said. "She's still my dog. If we weren't on the court together, we were together off the court. She's like an older sister to me."
Battle isn't at all surprised at Bueckers' ability to rebound from her knee injury with stellar play so far this year. She has seen how tough Bueckers is firsthand.
And now, face-to-face.
It's big for so many wearing maroon and gold. For Battle, certainly. For Braun, no question, after a strong start to this season that has seen her average 21.0 points while making half her shots. Four Gophers starters are native Minnesotans, which means half of the starters Sunday will be playing in their home state.
For Battle and Bueckers? It's like a family reunion — after the game.
"It's kind of crazy to be on the opposite side of Amaya now," Bueckers said. "Everybody knows I'm a competitor. So no friends, no relationships. We're enemies for a couple hours."