Former UConn women's basketball standout Berube has seen Bueckers, Iowa's Clark up close

Published on Friday, 26 March 2021 21:14
Written by CARL ADAMEC

JOURNAL INQUIRER

Carla Berube’s 2017 USA Basketball U-16 national team was so good that Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers came off the bench.

Still, the former UConn standout and Princeton University coach knew the future was bright for both and four years later their time has arrived.

The top two freshmen in the country and their teams meet Saturday as top-seeded UConn takes on No. 5 Iowa in an NCAA River Walk Regional semifinal at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

“Paige and Caitlin are cerebral players,” Berube said on Thursday. “They see things before they happen. They’re well coached and able to put their teammates in positions to be successful. They’re fun to watch.”

The 2017 U-16 team coasted to the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, winning their five games by an average of 53.6 points. Another guard coming off the USA bench was 2021 top recruit and UConn-bound Azzi Fudd. The starters were Zia Cooke (South Carolina), Celeste Taylor (Texas), and Jordan Horston (Tennessee).

Clark did not make Berube’s 2018 U-17 team but did join Bueckers again on the 2019 U-19 team coached by Louisville’s Jeff Walz that won the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I know Paige well from coaching her and we’ve kept in touch afterwards,” Berube said. “I always knew what she was capable of and I knew when she decided on UConn she would get the opportunity to do great things. I used to tell Paige that to be an elite player she’d have to do it at both ends of the floor and you can tell she’s taken that to heart. And her leadership … People listen to Paige. She’s not like most freshmen.

“When Caitlin chose Iowa, I always thought she’d go there and make an impact whether it would be scoring or passing the ball. She’s done that immediately playing in a strong conference like the Big Ten. She has ice water in her veins. Not much affects her.”

Clark heads into the showdown No. 1 in the nation in scoring (26.8) and No. 2 in assists (7.2). She was an Associated Press All-America second-team pick. Bueckers became the third freshman to be named to the AP first team and leads the Huskies in scoring (19.9), assists (6.0), and steals (2.4) in what has been a historic rookie year so far.

So Berube will be in front of her television Saturday at 1 p.m., right? Well, no. She will be at practice until 1:45 with the five players from her Princeton team who are on campus. The DVR will be ready.

“It’s been awesome watching,” Berube said. “There’s been a lot of great basketball, some of the best games I’ve seen in years. You see a lot of emotions from the players and coaches after all they’ve been through.”

Many teams have dealt with COVID-19 issues all season. But Princeton saw its season end before it began when the Ivy League announced the cancellation of the winter sports season in November.

For the first time since 1999-2000 after her playing career with the ABL’s New England Blizzard ended and before she took an assistant coach job at Providence College, Berube’s winter did not include basketball.

“It’s OK. It’s tough not coaching,” Berube said. “But we did get back on the court in February with the five players we have on campus. It was so refreshing and it meant so much. Half the team took a gap year because they saw the writing on the wall that we wouldn’t have a season.

“I always try to find the silver lining in anything. One thing I was able to do was spend much more time with my family. That’s been great. It’s a great feeling knowing my family and team are healthy.”

The cancellation was a double-whammy for Princeton. A year ago the Tigers were 26-1 with a 22-game winning streak, ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press poll, and the top seed for the Ivy League tournament with a WNBA first-round draft pick in Bella Alarie before the coronavirus ended the season.

By the time they take the court for their next game, it will be some 600 days since their last one.

“It’s hard not to think about it,” Berube said. “When you think of the team we had … We were successful, we worked hard, and I know we would have competed. And I think we would have had a good team this year. You can always wonder what could have been, but I prefer to be a forward thinker.

“I think we all knew that was going to happen this season the way that things were going and the trajectory of where they seemed to be headed. Athletics are part of the fabric of the schools and we’re not treated any differently than the rest of the university. I know the Ivy League presidents had in mind that they were going to do everything they could to keep everyone in their institutions healthy and safe.”

Another thing she was able to do this winter that was different than others was watch her alma mater in action via SNY.

While she’s watched the action on the court in the tournament, Berube has taken pride in the activism off the court calling out the NCAA for the treatment of the people in the event.

“It’s great to see the players and coaches use this forum and use their platform,” Berube said. “It’s empowering, really, to see them step up.

“(The inequality) is something that we in the sport have all recognized. We’ve made strides to where we should be treated at the same level as the men. We’ve got a great brand and a huge following. These student-athletes deserve better from the NCAA and it’s about time that something is being done.”

She hopes things will improve by the time the 2021-22 season comes around and her team is competing for another Ivy League title and a return to the NCAA Tournament.

“I think we’ve got some great pieces,” Berube said. “We’ll be experienced and I think we’ll be balanced. One of our players, Carlie Littlefield, is graduating in May and she’s going to play next year at North Carolina. But we have three starters returning and we’ll have a good amount of talent. Our student-athletes are driven. I’m excited to get back to work with them and to get better.”

But for now she’s excited about watching a great game Saturday between her alma mater and Iowa, which, coincidentally, was the only team to beat the Tigers a year ago.

UConn will have coach Geno Auriemma back on the sidelines after associate head coach Chris Dailey guided the Huskies to wins over High Point and Syracuse. And she’ll keep her eyes on Bueckers and Clark.

“I texted CD last week and told her, ‘You’re the best coach in San Antonio. Go win these two games,’ ” Berube said. “UConn seems to always play its best this time of year. Olivia Nelson-Ododa is coming on, and you can see the transformation with Aaliyah Edwards. And Paige is Paige.

“I know that their future is really bright, but they’ve got a great shot now.”



Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Friday, 26 March 2021 21:14. Updated: Friday, 26 March 2021 21:17.