Paige Bueckers returns to UConn in time for the postseason

Paige Bueckers scores over the St. John’s defense. Meg Kelly photo.

Paige is back.

Paige Bueckers, one of the best players in the country last year as a freshman at UConn, returned to the court 71 days – and 19 games – after surgery for an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear she sustained during a win against Notre Dame in December.

My first thought was “Kellie Jolly.” My second thought was “Kevin Durant.”

Jolly, now Kellie Harper, is the Tennessee head coach. As a sophomore point guard at the school in 1996, she tore her ACL (for the second time) in a September pickup game, then was instrumental in guiding her 10-loss Vols to a repeat National Championship.

Doctors used a ligament from a cadaver to repair Harper’s knee, and suggested that she redshirt, setting nine months as the likely rehabilitation time. Harper returned to the court 90 days later. The defending National Champion Vols were 11-6, and went on to lose 10 games that season.

Just 14 days later, Laurie Milligan, who played point in Harper’s absence, was lost for the season with a knee injury.

Harper, now the only available point guard, played in 23 games, starting 17. She averaged 8.9 points and 4.1 assists per game, but dished out 20 assists in the Final Four as the Vols, a No. 3 seed, went on to repeat. Chamique Holdsclaw was the star of that team (she scored 55 points in the Final Four), but Harper’s return was the key to their late-season success.

She played two more years for Tennessee, winning the National Championship in 1998 for the third consecutive year.

Durant, thought by many to be the best player in the NBA, strained a calf in game four of the 2019 Western Conference semifinals. He missed the last two games of that series, all of the Conference Finals, and the first four games of the Finals between his Warriors and the Toronto Raptors.

With his team down 3-1, Durant, under tremendous pressure to save the season, returned to the court, apparently too soon. He scored 11 points in 11 minutes, then tore his Achilles tendon. The Raptors won the title.

Durant missed the entire 2019-2020 season, and has been plagued by leg injuries since.

Will Bueckers become a key piece of a Husky ride deep into the postseason? Or has she returned too soon, risking re-injury?

As Bueckers went to the scorer’s table last night as part of a four-player line change, more than 9,000 UConn fans roared. She entered the game at 3:41 in the first quarter, with her team already leading St. John’s, 19-4.

She looked great. She accelerated. She played defense. She set screens. She made “some plays that she would make that other kids on our team have a hard time making or even thinking about,” as Coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards.

In true Bueckers fashion, her first basket in over two months was a buzzer-beater in the lane to end the first quarter.

“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.”

In all, she played just over 12 minutes, scored eight points and grabbed two rebounds. She had just one assist, but it was an interior pass to Aaliyah Edwards that demonstrated the most important part of what her team has been missing. It was perfectly-timed to Edwards’ cut, and was possible only because Bueckers anticipated her own movement necessary to create the passing lane.

The immediate and obvious impact of Bueckers’ return on her team will be more important than her raw statistics. This game was the most complete performance of the year for a squad that has been inconsistent all season, and it had a lot to do with team confidence.

“When we lost her, a lot of our other players really felt that that loss hard, because it just puts so much on their shoulders,” Auriemma said. “And I don’t know that in the beginning they understood just how much, you know, Paige does for them.”

The team has evolved in Bueckers’ absence, according to their coach.

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

Her teammates agreed that Bueckers return was a huge lift for them.

“I really think that we’ve had a different kind of energy about us as Paige has been back,” Azzi Fudd said. “And today there was just so much more, like, excitement and stuff going in this game knowing that all 11 of us here were healthy and playing.”

“It was a lot of fun to play. I mean that first subgroup when four people subbed in at a time. I was kind of weird looking. But it was a lot of fun today for sure.”

In the most complete team effort in probably three years, UConn demolished St. John’s 93-38. The Huskies moved constantly, cut sharply, shot confidently, and played smothering defense, holding the Red Storm to 10-40 shooting through three quarters, with no let up as Auriemma rotated nine players into the game. Most telling, UConn had 27 assists on 40 field goals.

On Wednesday, Auriemma had said that Bueckers would “not return this week.” But she hit the court Friday, two games early. Certainly, a top-notch medical team has monitored her recovery carefully, and cleared her physically to play. Certainly, rehabilitative medicine has advanced greatly in recent years.

But like Harper before her, Bueckers return has a lot to do with her own dedication to getting back to her team. It shows a tough, ultra-competitive nature, a love of the game, and a confidence that she would make it back before the post-season.

Asked about her rehab last week, Auriemma told a story that may have unconsciously predicted her early return.

“So maybe a month ago,” he said, “She walked into the athletic training room, and she had this big swollen knee. Everybody said ‘this is not good. This is going to set you back a long time’. She came back two days later, it was gone. I said, ‘What happened?’ She goes, ‘I’m different. I told God I needed this swelling to go down, and it went down.’”

“I kid you not. This is the craziness, this is the kind of stuff I got to listen to. So the kid just has this knack; she heals at her own pace.”

So far, Bueckers is more Harper than Durant. We can all hope it continues much the same way. And the Huskies, of course, hope it ends that way, too.

Harper had eight regular season games to get ready for the post season. Bueckers will have two, but another two relatively certain wins before the Big East Tournament final. Judging by her play Friday, that should be enough.

And the basketball world should be concerned that the UConn team everyone predicted could dominate, but hasn’t, just may be showing up for the last six games.

Right now, Bueckers is not the best player in the country, but she will become more like herself in the next weeks.

“I don’t know what the future is going to be,” Auriemma said. “Every other team is probably going to improve in the postseason. But, you know, we improved by what we added, and I don’t know that anybody else is adding somebody like that.”