UConn’s Paige Bueckers has taken the college basketball world by storm; just wait until best friend Azzi Fudd joins her next season

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Alexa Philippou, Hartford Courant
·6 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Azzi Fudd made the 500-mile trek from northern Virginia to Knoxville, Tenn., last month to watch UConn take on Tennessee — a matchup that, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, featured a shell of a big-game atmosphere that a top-25 showdown between storied rivals deserves.

But even among the 3,550 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena, Fudd was reminded that this is what lies ahead for her: big road games airing on ESPN, dogfights against tough opponents and playing good, meaningful basketball in front of thousands of fans.

“It was the best feeling,” Fudd said.

Fudd, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2021 who signed with UConn in November, watched as her future Huskies teammates clawed ahead in the fourth quarter before Tennessee cut the deficit to two with a minute to play. UConn had a scare when Paige Bueckers exited the game with an ankle sprain, but the freshman phenom (who also happens to be Fudd’s close friend) returned and hit a dagger 3 with 25 seconds remaining in the game.

That Thursday, it was Bueckers who hit the shot that etched her name in UConn lore, starting a run of spellbinding play that’s thrust her onto the national stage and skyrocketed UConn fans’ hopes for March. It won’t be too long before Fudd has the opportunity to do the same, alongside a fellow superstar and her best friend, no less.

Watching from afar

People speak of Fudd, a 5-foot-11 guard, similarly to how they spoke of Bueckers before she’d even stepped foot in Storrs. Ultra-skilled, a mega-recruit, one of the best high school players since Breanna Stewart. A generational talent. A player who, alongside Bueckers, has the potential to initiate another crazy UConn winning streak and perhaps a string of national titles.

Though the NCAA made this a “free” year of eligibility for collegiate athletes, Fudd didn’t have a path to graduate early from Washington, D.C.’s St. John’s College High (Saylor Poffenbarger was the only 2021 UConn signee to join the team in January). Fudd is finishing her senior year coursework virtually, plays with her high school team in Maryland and Virginia and, in what’s become a Fudd family affair, watches a lot of UConn basketball. Fudd and Caroline Ducharme, another 2021 UConn signee, text back and forth during the games — during the close ones, “oh my gosh, we’re so nervous,” Fudd said, “and we’re not even playing.”

“After meeting the girls and getting to talk to them, it’s a lot more fun just knowing that I’ll be out there soon with them,” Fudd said, “and that’s my team and my teammates.”

Fudd already has the inside scoop of what Storrs is like from Bueckers, hearing about everything from how hard and detail-oriented practices are to getting a firsthand account of Geno Auriemma’s recent practice player gimmick. Fudd and Bueckers became close years ago through USA Basketball, and Bueckers (the No. 1 recruit in 2020) relentlessly recruited Fudd both privately and publicly to join her at UConn — dangling the prospect of not just playing, but winning championships, together.

The pair like to say they know each other’s games better than anyone else. Bueckers’ stellar debut and clutch play — including, a few weeks after Tennessee, the 31 points and win-sealing 3 she drained against then-No. 1 South Carolina — may have surprised some onlookers, but not Fudd.

“I still can’t really wrap my head around the fact that she’s in college and she’s at UConn,” Fudd said, “but all of the stuff that she’s doing doesn’t surprise me at all. The crazy shots that she’s made? Those are just typical Paige moments and Paige plays.”

Handling the hype

Bueckers and Fudd aren’t the first star recruits to land at UConn. But unlike the Diana Taurasis and even the Stewarts of the world, their highlights have gone viral online, making them household names before they even put on a UConn jersey. SLAM followed both of them around during their senior years for a documentary. Fudd has 151,000 followers on Instagram, and Bueckers has 400,000 more than Stewart, a two-time WNBA champion and Finals MVP.

Bueckers has lived up to the hype, perhaps coming in even better than advertised. As the top player on the No. 1 team in the country, she’s considered a national player of the year candidate. There was even some talk of her being WNBA-ready a mere 15 games into her college career.

“She has always done a really good job, and she’s doing a really good job now, of just brushing off and putting [her success] on her teammates,” Fudd said. “I think that’s also another reason why I’m excited to play with her. She’s such a team player. It’s just fun being her teammate.”

The college stage may be bigger than the ones Bueckers and Fudd have experienced before, but it’s certainly not something entirely unfamiliar — a silver lining of dealing with so much fame at such a young age.

“I think being through a lot of that, I’ll be able to tune out all the negative stuff,” Fudd said. “Hopefully there’s a bunch of positive stuff, and if so, I won’t let it all get to my head and I’ll be able to just stay level with all of it.”

Fudd’s next four months are dedicated to preparing for her arrival in Storrs. After tearing an ACL and MCL in April 2019, she made her return to the court last January, but pandemic disruptions have made it more difficult for her to get back into a groove.

“I just want to be completely comfortable and get back 100 percent of my confidence and just feeling good again,” Fudd said. “It’ll go up and down with how it feels in games. It’s not something I ever think about like, ‘Am I going to injure it again?’ Before, if I was missing shots or a game wasn’t going my way, I could brush it off easily. Now I tend to get in my head a little bit more, so I want to get rid of that habit.”

Fudd has some time to figure it out and enjoy the last bits of her senior year. Fudd may not believe Bueckers is in college already, but she’s not far behind her.

And UConn will be ready.

“I think it’s amazing, watching them from the start of the season to now, how much they’ve improved as a team, but also as individual players,” Fudd said. “Watching them gets me so excited, seeing how good they are and how much I can’t wait to play with all of the girls.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com.