‘She did Paige things’: UConn’s Paige Bueckers dazzles in her return after a 19-game absence (2024)

An hour before UConn’s 93-38 win against St. John’s on Friday, Paige Bueckers grabbed a basketball, letting out a “wooooooo.” With her head tossed back and as she held the ball close, Bueckers’ yell carried across the court.

Two days earlier, she let out a similar cry after the national anthem at the game against Marquette. The sophom*ore had warmed up and dressed Wednesday for the first time since undergoing left knee surgery to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear. But that moment was just a tease for eager fans. Bueckers wasn’t available, sitting on the sideline, still wearing her brace.


On Friday, the “woo” was for real. By the time Bueckers was hollering and dancing around during UConn’s pregame routine, the question Huskies fans had been wondering was already answered: Bueckers was clear for game action. The brace was gone.

For the first time since Dec. 5, when she exited UConn’s win over Notre Dame, Bueckers was back. And with that pregame shout, she let everyone know it.

She was on the bench as the game against St. John’s tipped off, sitting in what has become her usual spot between an assistant and freshman Amari DeBerry. She played her role of cheerleader, reacting to calls and scores with her own dances and antics, just as she had done last season. But lately, that has been on more prominent display given how long she has spent time on the bench this season. At one point, Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s defense led to a shot clock violation near the Huskies’ bench, and Bueckers was right there, yelling “let’s go” in teammates’ faces.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma pointed to Bueckers, and with 3:41 left in the first quarter, she checked in for the first time to a standing ovation. She had missed 19 games, sitting out nearly three months. Her first bucket came in classic Bueckers fashion. With under 10 seconds left in the quarter, Bueckers drove from the other side of the court. After a great dribble move, she almost lost the ball but recovered with enough time to throw up a jumper. It went in as the buzzer sounded. Bueckers ran screaming toward the student section, and the crowd at XL Center absolutely loved it. So did Bueckers.

“That’s just what happens,” Auriemma said. “You can’t explain it. … She did Paige things.”

Bueckers said: “It wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t something extra. So it was a lot of fun.”

That fun extended to her teammates.

“We’ve had a different kind of energy about us since Paige has been back,” said Azzi Fudd, who scored a game-high 19 points.


No. 7 UConn struggled to find a consistent identity without the reigning Naismith Player of the Year. The Huskies dealt with a near-constant stream of injuries, COVID-19 issues and just bizarre mishaps, such as the team bus breaking down before a game at Providence. In the previous three games, UConn finally seemed to find its footing, with everyone available besides Bueckers and Aubrey Griffin, who is out for the season. Even before Bueckers entered Friday’s game, the Huskies were dominating, building a double-digit lead.

‘She did Paige things’: UConn’s Paige Bueckers dazzles in her return after a 19-game absence (1)

Paige Bueckers returned to action Friday after a 19-game injury absence. (Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

UConn recorded its most first-half points of the season (51) and shot 65 percent Friday. Five players finished the game with double figures in scoring. Bueckers shot 4 of 5 for eight points to go with two rebounds and one assist in 13 minutes. She sat the entire fourth quarter. The plan was for Bueckers to play about 15 minutes, Auriemma said before joking that he owes her extra minutes.

“I’ve never been more happy to be on a minutes restriction,” Bueckers said. “I’m just grateful for everything that I have.”

With Bueckers back in action, the Huskies’ joy was on display in the third quarter. After two well-executed UConn fast-break layups with precision passing, St. John’s called timeout. Things were going so well that the Huskies watched a fan participate in a shot challenge on the court during the timeout. They celebrated with their arms high when the ball went in, and Bueckers even moonwalked for the occasion. Less than two minutes later, Bueckers scored on a fast-break layup off an assist from Dorka Juhász. Running upcourt, Bueckers brought her hands to her face to mimic goggles, aiming the gesture at Juhász. Yes, it was a fun night for the Huskies.

One regular-season game remains before UConn’s focus shifts to the Big East Tournament. With a healthy roster, the Huskies appear to be peaking at an opportune time. They looked much different Friday from how they did in December.


“Because of the way it played out last year, and Paige being Paige and the kind of year that she had — when we lost her, a lot of our other players really felt that loss hard because it just put so much on their shoulders,” Auriemma said. “And I don’t know that in the beginning they understood just how much Paige does for them. So the team that she came back to is not the same team that she left. So, the team that she came back to is a better team.”

Before her injury, Bueckers led the Huskies with 21.2 points per game, with averages of 6.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals during a 5-1 start. Without Bueckers, UConn went 15-4.

Auriemma shared a story from last month that seemed to hint that better fortunes were ahead for the Huskies.

Bueckers walked into the training room with a swollen knee, he said. Everyone was concerned it would set her back a long time. She came back two days later, and the swelling was gone.

“What happened?” Auriemma said he asked her.

“I’m different. You know, I told God I needed this swelling to go down and it went down,” Bueckers responded, according to the coach.

“I kid you not, this is the kind of stuff I got to listen to in Werth (the practice center). So the kid just has this knack of she heals, you know, at her own pace,” Auriemma said.

It may be just in time for UConn. About a week ago, Bueckers returned to practice, taking part in some game-like activities. Auriemma asked if she wanted to play Sunday, but she said she wasn’t ready. He knew she’d tell him when she wanted the green light. But she didn’t want to overshadow senior day in Sunday’s regular-season finale. Bueckers said participating in shootarounds the last week gave her confidence. She started feeling better about her movements and was ready to go.

All but two UConn players have missed games, and Auriemma said the team feels as though it has built up a reserve, physically and mentally. More players can contribute, and they have a better understanding of what they’re trying to do.

Now Bueckers can help steady their confidence.


“If you have somebody like Paige on the floor, whose confidence never wavers, that kind of is infectious,” Auriemma said. “The rest of the team now knows there won’t be any droughts.”

Earlier this month, Fudd declared UConn was going to be a “nasty” team when it got healthy. It’s starting to look that way. Are the Huskies nasty yet? No, not yet. Fudd said: “We’re going to get better.”

Bueckers is clearly only at the start of her journey back to her full capabilities, and that could be scary for opponents. On Friday, having her back for even 13 minutes meant having fun for the Huskies. Between the pregame “woos” and the postgame dance to “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” there were plenty of smiles.

The biggest might have come as Bueckers walked to the locker room, as she high-fived left and right with an ever-growing number of fans. As she walked into the tunnel, a modified, decorated season schedule poster hung to the side.

It read “Welcome back Paige,” and in brightly colored letters was the word “nasty.”

(Top photo: Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

‘She did Paige things’: UConn’s Paige Bueckers dazzles in her return after a 19-game absence (2024)


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