Even as UConn women’s basketball cruised to a Big East Tournament championship with three-straight strong performances, the status of Paige Bueckers remains one of the top storylines surrounding the team as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
Bueckers played 18 minutes in the Huskies’ first two postseason contests after being limited to just 13 minutes in each of her two initial games back from injury. In the opener against Providence, she led the team with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, five rebounds and four assists before her numbers dropped in the semifinals against Marquette to two points, two assists and three turnovers.
In the championship game on Monday, Bueckers entered the game at the start of the second and fourth quarters and did not score in just eight minutes. Auriemma sent her to check in again with a few minutes remaining in the game but decided to call her back to the bench shortly afterward.
With the final being UConn’s third game in as many days, Bueckers’ knee clearly bothered her — something her coach admitted postgame.
“The actual physical part is real (after) playing two games in two days,” Auriemma said. “You knew that she was not going to be feeling 100 percent because when she is, she’s back to her old self at practice.”
However, he believes the mental side of Bueckers’ recovery is where she has the most work to do before the NCAA Tournament begins. While it might be unrealistic to expect to her reach 100 percent this season, Auriemma still expects Bueckers to make more of an impact on the floor than she did against Marquette and Villanova.
“I think she has to get her mind right now because she hasn’t been at in that mode for three months or whatever it is now,” he said. “So that’s going to be job number one in the next 10 or 11 days.”
“The frustration part and not being able to do it when she wants, on-demand whenever she feels like it — that’s a separate issue and at some point, you have to adjust to it,” Auriemma added later. “You either don’t play at all or understand that you, at 85 percent, can still be better than 90 percent of the kids playing college basketball. And don’t let your frustration get in the way of that.”
Bueckers will have time to work on both the physical and mental aspects of her recovery. The Huskies have roughly 10 days off before the NCAA Tournament begins on either March 18 or March 19, depending on how the schedule falls.
Bueckers suffered an anterior plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear in her left knee after going down with a non-contact injury in the final seconds of UConn’s win over Notre Dame on Dec. 5. She underwent surgery on Dec. 13 and missed 19 games before returning in the team’s penultimate regular season contest against St. John’s on Feb. 25.