One month ago, Paige Bueckers went to the training room with a swollen knee, a potentially devastating blow for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. A few days later, the swelling was gone and that was her response.
Proving that she was indeed different, UConn announced on Thursday that Bueckers had been cleared for play, placing the Huskies as close to full strength as they have been all season. Now that the band was back together, it was time to go to war.
The first team on the comeback tour was the St. John’s Red Storm. The Huskies started the game on a 17-0 run behind Azzi Fudd’s two three-pointers and contributions from Nika Muhl, Christyn Williams and Aaliyah Edwards. The Johnnies went 0-3 from the field with five turnovers.
Bueckers, who was on a 15-minute restriction per head coach Geno Auriemma, did not start the contest, but got a massive standing ovation when she checked into the game with 3:41 left in the first quarter. Her first field goal in over two months drew a louder applause.
With eight seconds left, Bueckers ran down the court, nearly turned over the ball, recovered and sent up a shot at the buzzer which, in vintage fashion, went in.
“It wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t something extra,” Bueckers said after the game.
The second quarter went precisely like the first one. UConn prevented the Johnnies scoring in the first five minutes, and the Huskies went on a 13-0 run behind Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa nailing her third 3-pointer of the season. Bueckers landed a shot off on two defenders for her second bucket of the game while Kadaja Bailey hit two 3-pointers in the final minute. At the break, the Huskies were up 32 and back in business, as Fudd had 13 on three 3-pointers and Edwards had 12.
The Huskies brought more offense in the third quarter, highlighted by a 14-0 run and a series of creative passes leading to a Dorka Juhasz bucket. Bueckers scored four points in the frame, scoring in the paint on jumpers both times. It was more than the offense, however, as the Huskies picked up seven steals (two from Muhl early) and three blocks, including a mean rejection by Williams.
UConn held pat in the fourth quarter, as Piath Gabriel picked up four points and Nelson-Ododa scored eight in the half en route to a 93-38 victory. Bueckers scored eight points in 12 minutes and went 4-5 from the field in her first game back.
“She did what Paige does. She did Paige things,” Auriemma commented about Bueckers’ return. “She’s … beaming that she’s playing basketball.”
Bueckers was grateful to be back on the court.
“Just to see my name in the box score with minutes next to me. I’m just glad to have minutes.”
If this season has proved anything, this team is much more than Bueckers. Fudd went 5-7 from beyond the arc and 7-9 from the field for 19 points in 20 minutes. Edwards had 16 points and seven rebounds while Williams, Nelson-Ododa and Caroline Ducharme had 13 apiece. The team shot 63.5% from the field.
The Huskies celebrated senior night two days later against the Providence Friars. There wasn’t a dry eye on the bench as the video boards displayed the best moments of each senior’s collegiate career. UConn recognized Williams, Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook and Juhasz, who were accompanied by the entire team
, in front of a sold-out crowd.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster today. I told myself I was not going to cry, but that did not work. It’s bittersweet,” Williams commented about the emotions of senior night, one that also featured the playing of the Hungarian national anthem to recognize Juhasz.
“I got really emotional. I felt so loved,” Juhasz commented.
“It was happy tears. It was a special moment for all of us,” Westbrook stated about the ceremonies.
The Huskies struggled to make a field goal in the first four minutes before going on a 24-0 run to close out the frame. Providence did not take a timeout while missing seven field goal attempts and committing seven fouls.
Williams scored 11 points off three 3-pointers as the Huskies piled on to their lead in the second. Providence stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer from Kylee Sheppard, but the Huskies brushed that off and ended the half on a 21-3 run, entering the half up 51-10.
The third quarter involved some offensive struggles as Nelson-Ododa’s bucket in the paint was the only field goal in the first three minutes. Janai Crooms scored all 12 of her points in the frame, but the defense came up big with rebounds galore to keep the game at a 40-point contest.
Ducharme and Fudd brought their offenses to the table in the final frame with strong layups. For the final time in the regular season, Gabriel and DeBerry checked into the game and scored as the Huskies closed the game on a 13-2 run to win 88-31.
The Huskies dropped 88 points despite shooting 43% from the field, which may have been impacted by their rebounding game, as the Huskies outrebounded Providence 57-35.
Williams finished with 16 points while Juhasz got her second double-double of the season with 14 points and 10 boards. Fudd got 14 off the bench while Nelson-Ododa had 13 points and eight rebounds. In her first start since Dec. 5, Bueckers finished with two points, three rebounds and five assists.
“I thought [Paige] would take it slow and she has,” Auriemma commented about Bueckers’ performance. “She came out and passed the ball just like I thought she would.”
The regular season has concluded for the No. 7 Huskies (22-5, 16-1 Big East), whose next game will be on Saturday, March 5 at Noon at the Mohegan Sun Arena on FS1. Their opponent will be determined by Friday evening.