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Paige Bueckers returns with a bang in UConn’s win over St. John’s

The sophomore didn’t take long to re-introduce herself after missing the last 19 games with a knee injury.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Paige Bueckers’ return went so perfectly, it almost felt scripted.

As Geno Auriemma sent her to the scorer’s table to check in six minutes into UConn’s win over St. John’sher first time playing since suffering an anterior plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear in her left knee on Dec. 5 — the XL Center crowd roared with approval.

When Bueckers finally entered the game a few moments later, the volume increased and all 9,154 fans in attendance rose to their feet to welcome the superstar back. While her return came at the 3:41 mark of the first quarter, Bueckers re-introduced herself on the final possession of the period.

Off a St. John’s basket, Bueckers took the ball up court with seven seconds left and put a dribble fake on the initial defender — a move eerily similar to the play she got hurt on 82 days prior. She drove to the basket and went to pull-up at the elbow but had the ball knocked loose. Bueckers recovered it with a second to go and buried the shot as the buzzer expired.

The XL Center exploded into a celebration as if she just hit a game-winner, not a first quarter basket to put UConn up by 22. Bueckers let out a scream and threw her hands in the air in front of the student section. As she turned back to the bench, her teammates mobbed her at half court.

It was all perfectly Paige.

“When she made that shot at the buzzer, I said to Jamelle (Elliott), ‘You knew it had to end like that. You knew it had to happen,” Auriemma said postgame. “Something like that had to happen for her at that particular time because that’s just what happens. You can’t explain it.”

“It wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t something extra,” Bueckers said with a smile.

She finished with eight points, two rebounds and one assist in 12 minutes — three fewer than her limit, according to the coach. The numbers weren’t really important, though. Bueckers performance was nothing special for her standards — which is to be expected after so much time on the sidelines — but there were a few moments where she looked like her old self.

She not only hit the shot at the end of the first quarter, but also made a few passes that only she could make and drove to the basket without hesitation. Bueckers even had the swagger that defined her game as she gave a Michael Jordan-esque shrug after a fast break layup late in the third quarter.

“She did what Paige does,” Auriemma said. “She did Paige things.”

The timing of Bueckers’ return needed to fit into a tight window. She told Auriemma prior to UConn’s win over Georgetown last Sunday that she wasn’t ready to play even though the doctors had already cleared her to play. At the same time, Bueckers didn’t want her first game back to be on Sunday against Providence because of senior day.

“The one thing she didn’t want to do: She didn’t want to wait,” Auriemma said. “She didn’t want Sunday to be her first game. I think she’s just too conscious of ‘It’s senior day and that’s not going to be my first game.’ So I think that’s why she was adamant, like, ‘I want to play Friday night.’”

As Bueckers rebuilt the confidence in her knee, it helped to slowly work herself back into the mix. She re-joined shoot-around and on Wednesday, dressed for the game and participated in warmups.

“It was more of me just being mentally ready to use my knee again, to make those same cuts, same movements,” Bueckers said. “Over the past week or so, I think shoot-around has given me a lot of confidence, just busting up the starters and stuff.”

With the entire team finally healthy — save for Aubrey Griffin, who is out for the year after having back surgery — for the first time all season, UConn played its best game of the year against St. John’s. The Huskies set a season-high in margin of victory (55), assists (27) and shooting percentage (63.5). They opened the game on a 17-0 run and never looked back.

Though Bueckers’ on-court impact was comparatively small — five players scored at least 10 points for UConn while Evina Westbrook had 10 assists — her presence alone seemed to provide a spark to the entire team.

“She gives them confidence,” Auriemma said of Bueckers. “A team’s confidence sometimes waivers — it goes up and down. But if you have somebody like Paige on the floor whose confidence never wavers, it’s infectious. The rest of the team now knows there won’t be any droughts.”

After UConn’s win over Tennessee — a comfortable 75-56 victory despite being without Caroline Ducharme — Azzi Fudd made a declaration that quickly caught on within the team.

“It’s gonna be really scary — and definitely scary for our opponents — because we’re gonna be a nasty team with everyone healthy,” she said.

So did the Huskies’ demolition of St. John’s fit the bill? Are they a nasty team?

“Not yet,” she said. “We’re gonna get better.”

But with Bueckers finally back, it may only be a matter of time.

“We’re not at nasty yet,” Christyn Williams said. “I mean, Paige — this is her first game back. We’re not nasty yet. We’re gonna get there.”