Paige Bueckers, 'so happy' to be back after 19-game absence, helps UConn roll to victory in return

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Sidelined for nearly three months with a left knee injury, reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers made her much-anticipated return in the UConn's 93-38 win over St. John's on Friday night.

The sophomore All-American guard took the floor for the first time since Dec. 5, checking in at the 3:41 mark of the first quarter to a standing ovation from the crowd at the XL Center.

Bueckers had missed the previous 19 games for the No. 7 Huskies (21-5) after suffering an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear in the final minute of their 73-54 win over Notre Dame. She had surgery Dec. 13.

The star guard finished with eight points on 4-for-5 shooting in 13 minutes Friday, with three stints of action before she sat the entire fourth quarter. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Bueckers was on a minutes restriction of 15.

"I thought it was what it was," Auriemma said of Bueckers' outing. "I didn't expect her to go out there and be bad. And I didn't expect to play her 30 minutes. And I knew there'd be some plays that she would make that other kids on our team have a hard time making or even thinking about. And she got just enough to kind of get her feet back under and see how she is [Saturday] and then we'll go to Sunday."

Bueckers said despite some nerves, she was excited and happy to be back on the court.

"I've never been more happy to be on a minutes restriction," she said. "Just to see my name in a box score with minutes next to it is surreal to me, amazing to me, just to be back in this position. I'm just grateful for everything that I have."

Bueckers, the first freshman to win the Wooden Award or be named Naismith Player of the Year, was initially given an eight-week recovery timeline following her mid-December surgery. Even as she started to ramp up what basketball activities she could do, she said it took a bit more time for her to feel completely ready mentally.

"My doctors have been telling me, 'You're fully healed, your bone's good, your ligaments are good,' but it was more of me just being mentally ready to use my knee again, to make the same cuts, same movements," she said. "Over the past week or so, I think shootaround has given me a lot of confidence, busting up the starters and stuff. I think ever since then, I started actually thinking about how I felt ready and I felt a lot better in my movements."

Bueckers came off the bench Friday for the first time in her career, and her first basket since December was a memorable one. With the clock winding down at the end of the first quarter, she shook her defender and nearly lost the ball before collecting it and sinking an elbow jumper right at the buzzer.

Bueckers roared and raised her hands to amp up the student section before she was embraced by teammates on the bench.

"The first basket, it wouldn't be me if it wasn't something extra,'' she said. "So, I don't know, it was a lot of fun.''

Added Auriemma: "I said to [assistant coach] Jamelle [Elliott], 'You knew it had to end like that. You knew something like that had to happen, for her, at that particular time. Because that's just what happens. You can't explain it. She made a couple passes, she made a couple plays in the lane that only she can. She did what Paige does. She did Paige things."

Prior to her injury, Bueckers carried an outsized load for the Huskies, averaging a team-best 21.2 points, 6.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals through the first six games of the season. The Huskies started the year 5-1 with her in the lineup, losing to top-ranked South Carolina in the Bahamas Nov. 22, and they went 15-4 without her.

Bueckers played within herself Friday, but looked more and more comfortable creating her own shot and running in transition as the game went on. But the Huskies didn't need her to do much more. Five others scored in double figures, including freshman Azzi Fudd with a team-best 19 points -- a reflection of how much UConn has grown into a more balanced, multidimensional unit in Bueckers' absence.

"I'm just trying to do what I can to help this team win," Bueckers said. "I'm not really focused about me and getting back to the old me and doing what I did before because we're such a different team now. So whatever my team needs me to do, I'm going to try to do it."

Both with and without Bueckers on the floor Friday, the Huskies hummed as if they'd played all year together, shooting 63.5% from the field and compiling 27 assists, both season-highs, on their way to securing their largest margin of victory in 2021-22.

"The team that she came back to was not the same team that she left," Auriemma said. "The team that she came back to is a better team, has a better understanding of what we're trying to do, has more players that can do more things than they could do the last time she played. She gives them confidence. A team's confidence sometimes wavers, goes up, down, but if you have somebody like Paige on the floor whose confidence never waivers, that kind of is infectious, and the rest of the team now knows there won't be any droughts."

UConn has one more regular-season game (Sunday versus Providence) as well as the Big East tournament to get Bueckers back into proper game mode and fully into the fold -- a scary prospect for the rest of the country considering the Huskies had already started to play their best basketball of the season before her return.

"Every other team is probably going to improve in the postseason," Auriemma said. "But we improved by who we added, and I don't know that anybody else is adding somebody like that."

Following their 75-56 win over then-No. 7 Tennessee earlier in February, UConn players warned that once finally healthy, they'd be "nasty" down the stretch.

So did Friday's blowout fit that description?

"Not yet," Fudd said. "We're going to get better."