Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and the friendship that fuels March Madness

JALEN SUGGS PACES in front of the television in his hotel room in Provo, Utah. The minutes are ticking down to tipoff for Gonzaga’s nationally televised men’s basketball game on Feb. 8 against BYU, but in Storrs, Connecticut, the seconds are ticking down on his friend Paige Bueckers.

Suggs is wearing out the hotel room carpet. He’d started streaming the UConn game on his iPad, but the Gonzaga freshman needs to really see this one. He needs to move. “I had to stand up and watch it,” Suggs says.

The UConn women, ranked No. 2, trail No. 1 South Carolina by one point with less than a minute to go in overtime. It’s the biggest game of Bueckers’ electric freshman season. Her shoes squeak against the Gampel Pavilion hardwood as she comes off a screen. The Huskies’ guard has scored eight straight UConn points, and everyone — Suggs included — knows the ball is headed back her way.

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Bueckers catches a pass on the right wing and dribbles toward the middle of the court off a ball screen. She pulls up just inside the 3-point line and drills a jumper. The Huskies lead 60-59.

With 41 seconds to go, Suggs pivots back and forth between the bed and the TV. His eyes follow Bueckers as she jogs down the court for UConn’s final possession.

With eight seconds left on the shot clock, Bueckers drives to the basket. The Gamecocks’ defense collapses and she dishes to Olivia Nelson-Ododa at the free throw line before leaking back to the top of the key. With four seconds on the shot clock, and 14 in the game, Bueckers catches a panicked pass from Nelson-Ododa, plants her feet, and heaves a fadeaway 3-pointer. It bounces high off the back of the rim, hanging in the air above the backboard, before finally dropping through the net with 10.8 seconds to go.

Suggs shouts at the TV and grabs his phone to send a Snap to Bueckers. UConn has won 63-59 and her miraculous shot replays on his TV. “You’re really the GOAT!” Suggs yells into his phone, holding it so Bueckers will be able to see his face. He’s all smiles. “Good game! I’m so proud of you.”

He heads for the door. Bueckers did her job and now it’s time for him to do his. Two hours later, Suggs scores a game-high 24 points in Gonzaga’s 11-point victory over the Cougars.

Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers have put up sensational freshman seasons that have Gonzaga and UConn in position to contend for national championships. Separated by thousands of miles, the friends have stayed connected with regular texts and Snaps. ESPN

Before they were separated by thousands of miles, before they became two of the most exciting basketball players in the country, Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers were little kids with common dreams growing up together in the Twin Cities metro area of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Over never-ending games of 21 at Suggs family barbecues or while sipping milkshakes side by side, they discovered a shared truth: When the game is on the line, and when the lights are brightest, they want the ball in their hands.

Never is that truth more important than now — on the eve of the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments. Suggs, a projected lottery pick in the 2021 NBA draft, looks to deliver undefeated and top-seeded Gonzaga its first national championship in program history. And Bueckers, who has had one of the most prolific freshman seasons in UConn history, looks to bring the title back to Storrs for the first time since 2016 and the 12th time in all. For the next three weeks, and for years to come, the basketball brilliance forged in Minnesota will be on display for the entire country to see.

Gonzaga and Suggs open their tournament on Saturday against the winner of Appalachian State and Norfolk State. UConn and Bueckers begin their bid Sunday against High Point.

From elementary school through AAU through high school superstardom, to enrolling at basketball-obsessed schools on opposite sides of the country, this is the inside story of the phenomenal freshman friendship fueling March Madness.

As kids in Minnesota, Paige Bueckers and Jalen Suggs discovered that they both wanted — needed — to have the ball in their hands in the biggest moments. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

BORN 139 DAYS and 20-some miles apart in an area known more for hockey, a giant mall and Paul Bunyan, Suggs and Bueckers wasted no time building their own local legends — in basketball.

Consider a game in which Bueckers … was in second grade. She was already playing with kids a few grades older because she’d been too good to play with those her own age. Her dad, Bob, was filling in as coach. It was overtime and they were down by a couple of buckets, and Bueckers was on the bench. So Bob did what any coach would do — he put in his best player. But there was a problem: This was a rec-league game — and rec-league rules stipulated that every kid was required to play even time. And, of course, Bueckers had already maxed out. Bob had no idea.

The opposing coach flagged down the refs. “You can’t do that!” he said.

So Bob pulled his daughter out of the game. She went over to the bench, tears in her eyes. “I need to be in the game,” she said.

“Her will to win was that strong, back then,” Bob says.

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For his part, Suggs started hitting jumpers at 2 on the Fisher-Price mini-hoop his dad had bought him. He’d stand with his feet on the line his dad marked as the free throw line and toss in one shot after another. “This dude’s 2½ years old and he’d just sit there and drill jumpers,” Larry Suggs says. “And you know the circumference on one of those hoops. There’s not that much room for errors.”

The stories of Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers converge on a basketball court, of course, when they are both in elementary school. Suggs played on a team with a close family friend of the Bueckers, and she tagged along to practice, sometimes coming straight from her own. Bueckers mimicked the drills the boys did on her own basket. She’d force her way into their drills. “She loved to be there,” Suggs says.

Their friendship kindled through those practices and on the sidelines at AAU tournaments, blossoming as they grew older and each garnered more attention. Their basketball trajectories have been astonishingly parallel. First, as younger kids playing ahead multiple years. Then as eighth-graders playing varsity on two of the best basketball programs in the state, Suggs at Minnehaha Academy and Bueckers at Hopkins High. Then came USA Basketball, five-star recruiting rankings and awards. Lots of awards.

Suggs was the Minnesota Gatorade player of the year in both football and basketball as a senior. Bueckers won three straight Minnesota Gatorade player of the year awards and was named the national player of the year as a senior. They have four basketball state titles and seven USA Basketball gold medals between them. Both attended Steph Curry’s SC30 Select Camp as seniors, sitting next to each other on the plane to the Bay Area. Suggs was named the most outstanding boys player at camp; Bueckers was named most outstanding girls player.

Jalen Suggs starred in both football, as a quarterback, and basketball in high school. It was much more difficult to drag Paige Bueckers away from the basketball court. Courtesy Amy Fuller

When Bueckers shows up at the Suggs’ house, she rarely even knocks. She’ll just walk in and sit with Suggs on the couch, or go find him back in his room. She’ll tease his little sisters, Jaelle, 13, and Jennica, 15, pulling a chair out from underneath them when they’re trying to sit down. “She was really just around all the time,” Suggs says, “like part of my family.”

“They can just sit there and not speak,” Jennica says, “and still look like they’re having a great time.”

The Suggs family loves to throw food on the grill. Burgers and brats — an upper Midwest staple — with macaroni and cheese and cheesy potatoes. And just as often as there is food being served, there is a ball bouncing in the backyard. Rarely is a winner declared. “They never really end the game,” Jaelle says. “If it ends, then someone gets mad. And then they have to rematch and that’s just a long ordeal.”

Trash talk is as much a staple as the brats on the grill. No matter where the games are played.

During one game, at the Minnehaha lower school, Suggs tells Bueckers that he is going to dunk on her. As he’s dribbling, she picks his pocket. She dribbles to the corner and sets her feet. Just before she shoots, she blows him a kiss.

And drains it.

Jalen Suggs, who is projected to be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, encountered plenty of competition growing up in Minnesota — sometimes even in his own backyard. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

LIGHT SNOW FALLS in Minneapolis on Jan. 3, 2020, but inside Minnehaha Academy, the temperature is hot. During halftime of a nationally televised game between Bronny James’ Sierra Canyon of California and The Patrick School of New Jersey, Suggs — fresh off a win at his school’s holiday tournament — unzips his red sweatshirt to reveal a “Zag Up” T-shirt, announcing his commitment to Gonzaga and instantly becoming the highest-ranked recruit in program history. Nine months earlier, Bueckers had committed to UConn, becoming the third No. 1 recruit in four years to choose the Huskies. In a matter of months, nearly 3,000 miles would loom between the nearly lifelong friends. Fans from West Coast to East Coast would be introduced to the hoopla that Minnesota had enjoyed for years.

On Nov. 26 in Fort Myers, Florida, Suggs makes his debut in a Gonzaga uniform against then-No. 6 Kansas. He scores 24 points and has eight assists, four rebounds and two steals. He is named West Coast Conference freshman of the week. Bueckers makes her UConn debut Dec. 12 against UMass Lowell and has 17 points, nine rebounds, five steals and five assists. She is named Big East Conference freshman of the week.

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But as winter begins to set in, the distance between Spokane and Storrs feels even farther. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has kept Bueckers and Suggs on campus and their families away. 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 dad, has tried multiple times to make it to Storrs for a game, each time stymied by weather or a COVID-19 exposure. He would finally make it for the South Carolina game.

Bueckers hasn’t been home since she left in the summer. Neither has Suggs. He misses being able to sneak a milkshake with Bueckers, or her just crashing whatever is going on at his family’s house. “It’s been tough at times,” Suggs says. “We used to kick it all the time. Now, she’s all the way across the country.”

But they open their phones and get a little slice of home, especially when they need it most.

Bueckers’ toughest game this season comes on Jan. 21 against Tennessee in Knoxville. It’s one of the only games she has played in with a notable number of fans — 3,500 — in the stands. She has seven assists, eight rebounds and a season-low nine points, shooting 3-for-14 from the field and 1-for-6 from beyond the arc. “It would have been all my fault if we lost,” Bueckers says.

Suggs is there for her — on the other end of a text message — after the game. He has pointers about picking up her aggression and getting out of her head, but he knows she doesn’t need much beyond his support. “We’re harder on ourselves,” she says. “And we know that. We both know we’re not going to be perfect, but we just try to stay positive as much as we can.”

Bueckers returns the favor for Suggs when, nine days later, he musters just four points and one assist against Pepperdine. He fouls out late in the second half after playing only 17 minutes. Even if it’s from afar, Bueckers is there to support her friend.

Jalen Suggs and Paige Bueckers already have added to their long lists of accomplishments this season. But the biggest prizes are still on the line. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

But the good games — even the great games — far outnumber the bad. Both have spent their freshman seasons, 24 games apiece (and counting), filling up multiple columns on the stat sheet. Suggs enters the NCAA tournament averaging 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Bueckers averages 19.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Suggs is awarded WCC Newcomer of the Year and named to The Associated Press All-America second team, and Bueckers picks up the Big East Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year awards and was named a first-team AP All-American.

“It helps to have that person to lean on, knowing he goes through the same things I do,” Bueckers says. “He’s my biggest fan, and I’m his biggest fan.”

SUGGS BOUNCES THE ball to Bueckers at the Minnehaha gym. Check.

“Next point wins,” Suggs says.

A group of guys has entered the small gym and Bueckers and Suggs have to surrender the court. It’s April 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person learning about a month ago. Neither of them has ended up with the senior season they thought they’d have. Bueckers was supposed to play in the state championship game, but that was canceled. Suggs’ season ended just after his team won the sectional championship game.

So here they are in this gym, two stars on the rise, mere months from heading to opposite coasts. They’ve been trading baskets all game. It doesn’t matter what Suggs does, Bueckers can’t miss. Hook shots, runners, 17-foot fadeaways with his hand in her face. Swish after swish after swish. She’s never beaten him, but this could be the one time she does.

This time next year, Jalen Suggs is expected to be playing with Stephen Curry in the NBA, and Paige Bueckers will be back at UConn, teaming up with Azzi Fudd. First, the friends share the bright spotlight that is March Madness. Courtesy of Amy Fuller

Bueckers jabs to her left. When Suggs leans a bit, she dribbles with her right hand. She only gets three before she has to shoot. She uses her second dribble to step back, and Suggs bites. She knows she should hit him with a hesitation and drive, but she sees the opening too late. Instead, she picks up the ball and launches a long jump shot. It clangs off the rim. Suggs snags the rebound and scores on his next possession.

“She talked about that for the rest of the day,” Suggs says. “She still talks about it.”

“That was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made,” Bueckers says. “I think about this when I fall asleep. I’m going to beat him next time, and I just want the people to know that.”

The competitive fire is something they get from each other. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing one-on-one, running through shooting drills, or playing Fortnite. And that drive fuels their desire to deliver a national championship not just to each of their schools but home to Minnesota.

“This will be an inspiration for all the little kids and little girls back home that look up to her,” Suggs says. “That look up to me.”

Says Bueckers, “The biggest players shine in the biggest moments.”

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