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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Heartfelt rivalry resurfaces in homegrown talent showdown

A celebration of Minnesota talent and women’s basketball took place at Williams Arena Nov. 19 in a heartwarming reunion.
Image by Gabrielle Erenstein
Amaya Battle tries to block a shot on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. The Gopher’s Women Basketball team faced off against University of Connecticut, and lost with a score of 62-44.

Over 10,000 people gathered at Williams Arena on a November evening to watch the vibrant reunion of Minnesota-grown girls’ high school basketball talents.

The UConn Huskies and Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball matched up in a game featuring players from eight different Minnesota high schools.

Sophomore guards Mara Braun and Amaya Battle were fierce competitors in high school with Battle playing for Hopkins and Braun for Wayzata. Paige Bueckers, a redshirt junior guard for UConn, was teammates with Battle in high school. Together, they took down Braun’s Wayzata team in the 2019 and 2020 Class 4A Section 6 title games.

Williams was an even mix of Gopher and UConn fans. Although the home team lost 62-44, Braun said the game was a good indication of the Gophers heart, given it was their fourth game together.

“We can hang with good teams,” Braun said. “Tonight was just a glimpse into the rest of the season.”

During his time at UConn, head coach Geno Auriemma turned the program into a perennial contender. He led the Huskies to 11 national championships and is a 2006 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Auriemma said he was impressed with how the young Gophers team handled themselves throughout the entire game.

At the end of the first half, the Gophers were down by three and holding the formerly ranked No. 8 team in the nation to 26 points.

“I wasn’t down here at halftime going ‘Yeah no worries, we’re going to blow these guys out’ I don’t think so, not exactly my top speech today,” Auriemma said.

The Hopkins and Wayzata teams were always rivals, according to Braun, but she said there is a deep level of respect, not only for her current teammate Battle but also for Bueckers on the other end of the court.

According to the Star Tribune, Auriemma tries to schedule games in the hometowns of his players. Bueckers grew up wanting to play in Williams and attended the 2017 WNBA finals there. Former Gophers head coach Lindsay Whalen originally negotiated the matchup between Minnesota and UConn with Auriemma.

When head coach Dawn Plitzuweit took over the position for the Gophers, it was within her right to remove the game from the schedule. Plitzuweit said removing the game crossed her mind but decided to keep it because “it was the right thing to do.”

“I don’t know Paige personally and I didn’t know Geno personally going into this,” Plitzuweit said. “I think ultimately this is an opportunity for us and an opportunity for us to compete and we did at a very high level.”

Auriemma said his team had another instance where he tried to schedule a game for a senior on his team in their hometown when the minute the school changed coaches, they pulled out of the contract.

Amaya Battle dribbles the ball on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. The Gopher’s Women Basketball team faced off against University of Connecticut, and lost with a score of 62-44. (Image by Gabrielle Erenstein)

“A lot of schools would tell you, ‘Hey, if that kid wanted to play here, she should have gone to our school,’” Auriemma said.

Both Plitzuweit and Auriemma agreed the chance to play each other would bring a multitude of fans to Williams, some of whom may not be familiar with the new identity of the Gophers team or are willing to witness Bueckers’ return to basketball.

Bueckers missed the entirety of last season due to an ACL tear that occurred during a pickup game. She had to miss three months of the 2021-22 season as well due to a knee injury. Bueckers, now back and playing for the Huskies, said the healing process allowed her to never take any moment for granted.

“It just really makes you enjoy every second, every moment,” Bueckers said. “Even when you don’t play your best … It’s just so great to be out there, it’s still great to be competing with your teammates.”

Gophers redshirt freshman Niamya Holloway, like Bueckers, tore her ACL and missed the entirety of last season.

Holloway played for Eden Prairie High School and occasionally competed against Bueckers. When she tore her ACL, Holloway said Bueckers contacted her after her knee surgery.

Bueckers was scheduled to have surgery a few days later.

“We were in connection about how we were doing,” Holloway said. “I’m just happy to see her back healthy.”

The energy inside Williams was unlike any other. With thousands of people packed into one area, the temperature rose coincidently with the noise from the crowd and the sounds of the instruments from the band.

Fans stood outside Williams Arena after the Gophers women’s basketball game on Nov. 19 and waited for the UConn team to board the bus. (Image by Alex Karwowski)

Gophers forward Mallory Heyer said the atmosphere was something the team had to manage coming into the game but they knew, at the end of the day, it was just another basketball game.

“It was a game that had a lot of fans and it was a great opportunity for us so hopefully we can have some more fans like that the rest of the season,” Heyer said.

Not only did people come out to Williams to see the Gophers, but other fans were also dressed head-to-toe supporting UConn and Wayzata, Hopkins and Chaska high schools. At the end of the game, a crowd formed along the gate, blocking off the UConn bus to watch the Huskies board.

Bueckers said it was surreal to play in the place she grew up watching college basketball and to play against the same athletes she did in high school made the experience all the more special for her.

Enemies on the court but friends off, Bueckers keeps ties close to her hometown through Battle. Bueckers described Battle as a “little sister.”

“Minnesota has done so much for me,” Bueckers said. “It was amazing to see the support.”

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