Hotbed for women's hoops in Minnesota goes beyond Bueckers

NCAA UConn NC State Basketball
Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers (5) drives to the lane against NC State during the first quarter of the East Regional final college basketball game of the NCAA women's tournament, Monday, March 28, 2022, in Bridgeport, Conn.
Frank Franklin II | AP

Cheryl Reeve was once in between weightlifting sets at a Twin Cities area fitness center when she spotted a scrawny youngster working on her game on an otherwise-empty basketball court.

This sixth-grader had the moves, determination and moxie to catch the eye of a WNBA head coach, and Reeve was so impressed she initiated an impromptu shooting drill for the girl to run through over the course of the next half-hour.

When Paige Bueckers became a star on the local high school scene a few years later, Reeve — who is beginning her 13th season with the Minnesota Lynx — had a revelation.

“I know her!” Reeve said to herself that day she made the connection.

This weekend, Bueckers will be back home, leading the Connecticut Huskies into their 14th straight Final Four. Minneapolis is the too-good-to-be-true host city for Bueckers, the smooth-shooting sophomore guard who has been working her way back from a serious midseason knee injury.

“She's a generational talent,” Reeve said Tuesday as she reflected on that chance first encounter with Bueckers, who in 2021 became the first freshman to win the AP women's national player of the year award. “You can spot those at a very young age. I was really glad to see that it was a young girl, and I needed to acknowledge that. I didn’t know what it was going to turn into, but I was happy she was there hooping and I wanted to let her know that."

As the northernmost state in the union with a long history of turning out top-level talent on the ice, Minnesota naturally gets labeled as the land of hockey. This is a basketball-avid area, too, from the four-time WNBA champion Lynx on down to the little girls learning to pass and dribble.

A progressive culture provided fertile ground for Title IX advancements to spur growth of the women's game, and the arrival of the Lynx in 1999 gave the Twin Cities a professional team to follow. One of their best stars was Lindsay Whalen, who grew up in Minnesota, stayed home to play for the state's flagship university and led the Gophers to their only Final Four in 2004.

According to the most recent participation survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, done after the 2018-19 school year, Minnesota has the highest per-capita rate of prep girls basketball players with 12,073.

Minnesota had 15 nominees for the girls McDonald’s All-American game, which was played Tuesday night in Chicago. The only states with more nominees were California, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

Whalen, who retired from a 15-year career as a WNBA player and now is the head coach of her alma mater, signed a four-player recruiting class for the Gophers for next season that was ranked 10th in the nation by ESPN. The entire quartet is from the Twin Cities area.

Lindsay Whalen
Minnesota women's head coach Lindsay Whalen speaks during the Big Ten NCAA college basketball media days in Indianapolis, Oct. 8, 2021. Minnesota coach Lindsay Whalen has signed a nationally lauded recruiting class for next season, with all four incoming players from the state.
Michael Conroy | AP

“Whoever it is who fits our program, that’s who we’ll recruit, but there’s no question — being right here where there’s so much talent — that we’re recruiting the state very hard,” Whalen said last fall.

One of those players is Amaya Battle, who hails from the same dynasty at Hopkins High School that sent Bueckers to UConn two years ago. The Royals won the Minnesota Class 4A state championship earlier this month, their only loss of the season coming against the Sidwell Friends School from Washington, D.C.

“There’s definitely a sense of needing to perform well to put Minnesota on the map,” Battle said, looking forward to her college career. “Minnesota players are good. That can help attract other younger players to possibly stay home.”

The Hopkins campus is about 10 miles west of Target Center, where the national semifinals will be played Friday night. The head coach of the Royals is Tara Starks, who was Bueckers' longtime coach on the summer circuit and has known her since she was a fifth-grader.

As she watched her team run through a recent practice at the Lindbergh Center, the Royals' home gym, Starks marveled at the growth of the game over the decades that have passed since she played for another area powerhouse, Minneapolis North.

“We just packed up and went to the park and played. Our gym teacher was our high school basketball coach,” said Starks, whose daughter is a graduate assistant on UConn's staff. “The opportunities and all the things that are offered now are so different now than when I played.”

Including having a WNBA team in town to look up to.

“You’re in your backyard or you're going to the playground, when you're younger and you’re working on your game, you can emulate Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore,” Reeve said. “We’re so blessed here in Minnesota. I don’t want to ever take it for granted.

"We’re one of only 12 cities in the entire country that has this great opportunity for girls and women, and for boys as well, because I think it’s important for boys to see this. They grow up understanding that it’s normal when they look to their female counterparts and see what they’re doing.”

Bueckers is one of those basketball-loving kids in the Minnesota area who grew up in the Lynx era, and now she's well on her way to being one of those oft-emulated players herself.

"People gravitate toward her. She's the type of kid you can't help but love," said Starks, who proudly displays a Bueckers jersey in her home. “Her impact has just been ridiculous, and it'll continue to be that way.”