UConn star Paige Bueckers working her way back from knee injury
STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Paige Bueckers tries to put the fear out of her mind.
But it's there when the 2021 AP national player of the year makes a cut or comes down hard on her surgically repaired left leg.
Bueckers is back on the court with her teammates — though not fully participating in practice games yet — 10 months after suffering the second major knee injury of her college career.
And she occasionally wonders, could it happen again?
“I believe that everything happens for a reason," Bueckers said Wednesday following a team workout. “Anybody can be scared of getting injured. You don't have to have a prior injury to do that. I think the fear is always there, but I try not to let it consume me and just go out there and have fun.”
Well, have fun and get in shape to lead UConn on a run at a 12th national title and its first since 2016, she said.
Bueckers was all-everything as a freshman, averaging 20 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds a game.
But in December of her sophomore season, during the closing seconds of a win over Notre Dame, she twisted her left leg while dribbling upcourt and went down, suffering a tibia plateau fracture and torn meniscus.
She missed 19 games in 2021-22, but came back from that injury late in the season and led UConn to its 14th straight Final Four.
Then, last August, during a preseason workout, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in that same knee and missed the entire 2022-23 season. The team still went 31-6, but lost in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State.
Bueckers was not the only injured player for the Huskies. Freshman Ice Brady also missed the season with an injured knee and Azzi Fudd (knee) and Caroline Ducharme (concussions), both missed significant time.
In fact, the Huskies had to postpone a game in January when the team couldn't find seven healthy players to suit up.
Bueckers said she can't remember the last time she, Fudd, Ducharme, Nika Muhl, Aaliyah Edwards and Aubrey Griffin were all healthy at the same time.
They hope to be in November at the start of the next season. But Ducharme said they are taking things slowly.
“There's a difference between working hard and overdoing it,” she said. “We're all a little too familiar with having injuries and we've gone through too much to not be smart about it.”
For Bueckers, that means she likely won't play in exhibition games this August when the Huskies travel to Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
She said the goal is to be ready for the season opener and eventually be playing better than she did as a freshman.
Bueckers spent last year as “Coach P,” sitting on the bench watching and learning from Geno Auriemma and his staff. She said she picked up on the little details that can mean the difference between winning and losing.
She's also more mature, she said, and has been working on getting stronger in the weight room.
“So I think I’ll be better,” she said. “But as I experienced my sophomore season when I was trying to come back, it wasn’t as fluid as I wanted it to be. There is ups and downs, highs and lows, and I know when I first came back, I wasn’t the player I wanted to be. And I’m not rushing it.”
In part because of those injuries, the Huskies are no longer considered the dominant team in women's basketball.
But Fudd said they are content to share the spotlight with LSU, South Carolina, Iowa and other programs — for now.
“I have no problem not being talked about, not getting the respect that we deserve," she said. “When the season comes, we're going to come out and prove it and earn out respect the hard way. And whether they think highly of us now, they'll think highly of us later.”
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
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