When Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers and Stanford’s Haley Jones fought for a rebound in the fourth quarter on Friday night, Bueckers ended up limping off the field. Bueckers returned minutes later, only to be knocked down again when Stanford’s Lexie Hull rushed for a rebound.
Collisions were not out of the question for these two very physical teams, especially since a shot in a national championship game was on the line.
But it’s only been two-and-a-half months since Bueckers underwent surgery to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear on his left knee. The 20-year-old guard returned to the court at the end of February and has slowly increased his playing time from 13 minutes a month ago to 45 minutes on Monday night. On Friday, she played 34 minutes against Stanford and led her team with 14 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists.
Bueckers ignored any questions about injuries or nerves after the game. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said.
On Sunday, she will face South Carolina and the best defensive team in the country, including 6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston, the 2022 National Women’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Bueckers is on a long list of Huskies who have missed time this season due to injury or illness. But they came back from their worst regular season since 2004-5 to eliminate two No. 1 seeds from the tournament – North Carolina State and Stanford – and now hope to start again to win their first national championship since 2016.
Getting up became a common thread between Bueckers and his teammates. After his first fall of the game on Friday, Bueckers winced, grabbed his right leg and limped off the field. After her second, during a scuffle for a ball jump in which she landed on her bad knee, Bueckers briefly covered her face with her hands before her teammates came to help her up. Buckers left him and resumed play.
“Some things, like what happened last night, are more of a kind of pain in the moment and you can just let it go,” Bueckers said Saturday. “I was just stretching and making sure I could get back into the game as soon as possible.”
“As soon as I leave the floor, I can’t wait to get back there,” she added.
Before Sunday’s game, Bueckers said she plans to sit in an ice bath, stretch and use “every recovery device we can to make sure our bodies and minds will be okay.” prepared”.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he will play against Bueckers for as long as she can and was not “interested in managing his time” on the court on Sunday but rather “managing his performance”.
“As long as she does the things we need, I’ll leave her there. If she’s having a little trouble with anything, physically or with her game, then I’m going to take her out,” Auriemma added. “She’s going to have her hands full tomorrow. We’re probably playing the best defense in America.
South Carolina’s Brea Beal, who covered Stanford’s offense on Friday and kept its leading scorer from breaking double digits, expects Bueckers to be at the top of his game, injury or not.
“When it comes to someone like Paige, it doesn’t matter what she’s going to do and I think the adrenaline is going to protect her from that,” Beal said Saturday. “I really think we’re definitely going to have the best game she’s played all season.”