During the portion of UConn women’s basketball practice open to the media on Friday, the team’s four injured players all watched from off the court. Nika Mühl, Azzi Fudd and Aubrey Griffin stood in a row on the sidelines while Paige Bueckers looked on from the corner with her left leg wrapped in an ace bandage and propped up on a stool.
At one point, Bueckers hopped over to her crutches against the wall and briefly stood up to watch the drill. Geno Auriemma, in the middle of an animated demonstration, paused when he noticed the sophomore and instructed her to sit back down.
Bueckers returned to her chair with a half-smile but also a look of pain and frustration. A little less than two weeks after suffering an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear in her left knee and just a few days since surgery to repair it, the reigning national player of the year hasn’t adjusted well to her temporary life without basketball.
“She’s texting, ‘I just want to be in the islands for two months and then come back,’” Evina Westbrook relayed.
Westbrook knows the feeling better than most. In her first year at UConn in 2019-20, the NCAA denied her waiver to play immediately and on New Years’ Eve, she underwent surgery to fix a knee issue which prevented her from practicing for the rest of the season.
Now that Westbrook’s the one on the court, she does her best to help her injured teammates through the mental and emotional battles.
“Obviously having been through it with all the injuries and stuff, it’s hard but you just have to keep the right mindset and the right people around you,” she said. “All you want to do is kind of just go back to your room just be alone...[but] that’s probably the worst thing that you could do. But being through that, [I] understand that.”
Westbrook explained that when out with an injury, it’s easy to feel isolated from the team. As a result, it’s crucial for the healthy players to keep those who aren’t supported and engaged at every possible turn.
“When I was hurt, I felt like at times I’m not out there at all. I’m not even part of the team. I’m contributing in no way,” she said. “I just keep talking to [the injured players] and I love that they’re in the huddles with us still. We go over and we huddle with Paige because she can’t walk...We’re not allowing them to bury themselves in this hole that you want to be in when you’re hurt.”
UConn’s walking wounded have also kept themselves locked in. Fudd has taken over high-five duties — giving a double high-five to everyone on the bench after a made 3-pointer — while Mühl and Griffin continue to provide energy from sidelines. Bueckers, meanwhile, can be a little over-eager.
“Someone said that she climbed over a chair (against UCLA),” Westbrook said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Okay, you’re doing too much now.’”
Those four have also found new ways to contribute since they can’t be on the floor. One of the few — if only — benefits from being sidelined is it forces players to look at the game from a new perspective. In fact, it doesn’t even take long to start seeing things differently.
“Most players, if they’re not playing, always comment to me after they get back that they learned a lot by watching,” Auriemma said. “Aaliyah (Edwards) sat out one day, she was telling me today [that] she was amazed at some of the things that she saw. She goes, ‘I can see why you’re frustrated.’ I said ‘Oh, there’s a glimmer of hope.’”
They also provide a second set of eyes for their teammates. They can reinforce certain teaching points or confirm what the coaching staff might be saying — but often in a more gentle fashion.
“It’s hard sometimes when you’re out there playing, you don’t see certain things. You can’t see how the energy looks. It might feel a certain type of way and [one of them] comes over like, ‘What he’s saying, that’s what it looks like,’” Westbrook said. “I like it better when a teammate tells it. Okay, he’s not just yelling. It really looks like that. So now we gotta fix it.”
Not just UConn’s healthy players are figuring out how to navigate without Bueckers, Fudd, Griffin and Mühl, the latter four are doing their best to get through their time on the sidelines. Although it’s not Auriemma’s preferred method of development, the hope is that both the team and players will find a way to benefit from their current circumstances.
“It’s not the best way to learn because you’d rather be playing,” he said. “But for sure, when you sit out, you do get a completely different perspective.”