No. 2 Connecticut pulled away from No. 24 Notre Dame in the fourth quarter Sunday, riding their defense and Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s best game to date to a 73-54 victory.
The win, however, may come at a devastating price.
Star guard Paige Bueckers collapsed to the court with 38.5 seconds remaining in the game, having not come out of the matchup even after her team opened a 20-point lead with 6:01 remaining.
Bueckers had been knocked to the floor several times during the game (without foul calls, despite being hit far from the action). She was noticeably weary as the game drew towards the end.
Any attempt to diagnose the injury would be irresponsible, but what we could see was the following: Bueckers was dribbling up court following an Irish three-pointer, and appeared to stumble near half court, with her left ankle flexing outwards. She dribbled twice, passed the ball off, then skipped a few steps and fell to the floor. She curled up on her side, and grabbed her left knee.
Team trainer Janelle Francisco and coaches gathered around her in the stunned silence of a sold out Gampel Pavilion. Teammates Evina Westbrook and Amari DeBerry then carried her off the floor, placing her gingerly across several chairs. She seemed to resist extending her left knee, and pointed to it as she talked to Francisco.
After the game, Bueckers limped off the court, supported by two staff members.
We must emphasize that there is no scientific consensus that supports a conclusion that Bueckers injury was related to her playing time or to fatigue. [See endnote].
That said, one thing is clear. If Bueckers had been removed to rest when the game was no longer in doubt, she would not have injured her knee during this game.
Curiously, no one knows why she was still on the court. Consider this unedited exchange in the Connecticut news conference following the game:
Q: “Paige had gone down previously in the fourth quarter. Did she ask to kind of stay in the game, or why was she on the court?”
A: Coach Geno Auriemma: “She never wants – she never comes out. She never wants to come out. It’s . . . . She’s a pain in the ass to have on the bench because all she does is complain about why she’s not playing.”
“And we’ve made a concerted effort in the last three or four games to get her some rest during the game. And you’re right. I don’t have an answer for why she was in the game.”
Several things about this exchange are striking.
First, Auriemma should be praised for being totally honest in answer to the inquiry that could lead to criticism.
Second, all of the Husky coaches – not just Auriemma – are responsible for the fact that he apparently did not know that Bueckers had played the entire game, and that she wasn’t going to come out heading into the matchup’s final seconds.
Third, the dissonance between reality and the statement that the coaches had “made a concerted effort to get her some rest” in recent games is remarkable. In the last four contests (USF, South Carolina, Seton Hall, Notre Dame), Bueckers played 38:11, 38:21, 33:50, and 39:21. In the 25-point blowout of Seton Hall two days prior, Bueckers did get 6:10 rest. In the other three contests, the sophomore played all but 3:29 of 120 possible minutes of game time.
Those numbers do not translate to a “concerted effort” to rest her.
Finally, who are the adults here? Bueckers, a very active player, was obviously tired during the fourth quarter of both South Carolina and Notre Dame. But she remained in both contests, under-performing in one, and sustaining injury in the other.
Was she really left on the court, seriously fatigued, because she complains when she she is on the bench? Don’t all highly-competitive athletes want to play all the time? And isn’t it the responsibility of their coaches to be sure they are not overextended?
We will know in the next few days whether Bueckers will miss a few, or all, of the games that remain in this season.