Published November 13. 2009 4:00AM Updated November 13. 2009 6:01PM
Storrs — Unless your names are Nykesha Sales and Asjha Jones, whom their teammates playfully nicknamed "precious" at various times for their ability to avoid Geno Auriemma's indignation, the path to success within the UConn women's basketball program begins as the target of the coach's comedy routine.
So Heather Buck should have taken it as a compliment recently when Auriemma mused after a game, "You know who is a really good 3-point shooter? Buck."
Then he paused to set up the dagger.
"Think I'm (kidding) you?" he said. "She can't make a layup, but she sure can make 3s."
(Geno will be here all week, folks. And don't forget to try the veal).
But that's been the story of the preseason for Buck, the greatest of them all in Stonington High School lore and legend, who sat out last season with mononucleosis and who has found her reintroduction to basketball filled with anxiety.
"She's nervous," Auriemma said. "Everything is happening a little too fast. Like when we play her on the blue team (with the starters) in practice, she struggles. When she's on the white team (with the reserves) she's a first-team All-American. We're just trying to figure out ways to calm her down."
Buck has played sparingly in UConn's two preseason wins.
Anyone familiar with Buck's high school career wouldn't use the word "nervous" to describe her. Buck was largely responsible for the greatest run in the history of the program, filled with Eastern Connecticut Conference division titles, tournament titles, several state tournament victories and a Class M state championship.
And it happened with Buck throwing as many elbows as she received.
But this is The Big Time.
"Coach says that at times, I play scared," Buck said Thursday after practice. "And I have been."
It's rare when high level (or even lower level) athletes admit to nervousness and being scared. But Buck went on to say this: "I'm trying to think way too far ahead and it freaks me out."
Thinking and playing aren't always related. As Yogi Berra once said, "you can't hit and think and the same time." The same must apply to basketball. It certainly did for Buck in high school.
"I thought she was very instinctive," high school coach Paulla Solar said. "And considering that she only started playing in seventh or eighth grade, she picked things up very quickly. I thought she was a tremendous athlete. We would give her a post move and she'd pick it up right away."
Solar said she really never saw Buck as anxious or nervous.
"I didn't see any anxiety from her at all, but I think she's a private type kid and wouldn't let you see all the things she was dealing with," Solar said. "I think she dealt with things by talking through them with her mom and dad.
"Heather wants to do the right thing all the time," Solar said. "I know she wants to do the best she can for her new coach. Sometimes, it doesn't always happen. Heather is just learning."
And she's learning in the place she always dreamed of learning. Throughout her days at Stonington — and even before — Buck dreamed of wearing one of the most famous uniforms in women's basketball.
"She said, 'I'm going to play basketball for Geno Auriemma,'" Buck's mother, Mayada Wadsworth, told The Day last year. "I said, 'Oh, sweetheart. There's probably 4,000 kids who want to play for UConn and only a few of you who are going to get to do that.'"
This just in, however: Auriemma doesn't give scholarships because he's a philanthropist. He's joked in the past that he'd sign Charles Manson if he thought Manson could help the Huskies win.
Auriemma liked Buck more every time he saw her play. It wasn't necessarily her production, but the inferno on the inside. He liked her competitiveness. He liked the way she responded to the occasional elbow and the triple teams she faced.
Before last season's NCAA Tournament, Auriemma said: "I just feel that watching her in practice, this kid is going to be really, really hard to play against. I'd be surprised if she's not a high-level player for us."
Later, he said: "She can play at this level and she knows it. Every day in practice, she learns more and more about herself. I don't even think she's the same person that started up here in September. … (Next year), Heather's looking at, 'You have to play and you have to play well and you have to be ready when (starting center and All-America candidate) Tina (Charles) graduates,'" the coach said. "And she will."
So where has that Heather Buck gone?
"We're still trying to figure that out," she said.
Buck, who still has four years of athletic eligibility, was reminded Thursday that she has considerable time to contribute consistently. And it's not like the Huskies don't already have All-Americans in Maya Moore and Tina Charles.
"Sometimes, it's hard to remember that," Buck said. "Coach wants things to be right all the time. And I don't want to let down the girls, either. They're counting on me. Being young is no excuse."