In Paige Bueckers’ opinion, her performance in No. 2 Connecticut’s season-opening victory Wednesday wasn’t good.
“But I’m grateful to have a bad game right now,” the 2021 Naismith and Wooden Player of the Year winner told reporters after the 102-58 drubbing of Dayton at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
Bueckers played her first regular-season minutes in 584 days after missing the 2022-23 season while rehabbing a torn ACL in her left knee. Her return was much anticipated for both the immediate boost to the Huskies, who have a roster ready to compete for a championship again, and college hoops in general as it continues to grow on the women’s side. Nearly 10 million watched the 2023 title game, a record-breaking number that came despite the game’s biggest star — at least of the prior two seasons — sitting on the bench every game.
The day prior to the 2023 tipoff, Bueckers said she was more excited for this season opener, her third in a Huskies jersey, than her freshman year since this time she had experienced the game being taken from her. With the smallest smile, and possibly some nerves, she was introduced to loud cheers to start her first game since the 2022 national championship loss down the street in Minneapolis from her high school.
At the time, she was one of, if not the most popular and well-known collegiate players. Reporters flooded any area around her table during those Final Four interviews and her highlights tore through social media and text threads. There was talk of if the WNBA Draft rules should change so that Bueckers could enter the professional ranks earlier than her junior year. Within the rules, she could have opted in last spring.
Instead, she opened her redshirt junior season scoring total with a drive to her right after juking a defender near the elbow in the second minute. The 5-foot-11 guard scored six of her game-total eight points in nine minutes of the first quarter. She played 21 minutes in all — more than her 10 in an exhibition contest — with seven rebounds, four assists and one steal. She was 3-of-9, a performance falling below her career 53% clip and a likely reason given her lofty standards of why she viewed it as a bad game.
“She’s so far ahead of herself,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “She wants to get it all back on each possession. I want to get the whole year back on each possession. You saw her in the first half trying so hard.”
Bueckers came to UConn as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, a heralded generational talent who was already on magazine covers when they were even more rare for women’s players than today. She was every bit as anticipated in her freshman year, averaging 20 points (52.4 FG%, 46.6 3FG%), 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals en route to a Player of the Year award sweep. She was the first freshman to win any of the AP, Naismith and Wooden Awards and only the third freshman in history to win AP First Team All-America.
After a Final Four appearance, she underwent ankle surgery, but was ready for her sophomore year. In December, she sustained a fracture in her knee that kept her out until the NCAA tournament. She played 17 games as a sophomore, but returned to lead the Huskies in a loss in the title game. And in August heading into her junior season, she sustained the torn ACL playing pickup.
More than a year later, she said she’s learning how to give herself grace and is grateful for a bad game because it means at least she was out there on the court instead of with crutches on the bench.
“I’m not ignorant enough to think that it’s going to be a linear trajectory this whole time and I’m just going to be on the up-and-up and be the old Paige and have a great game every game,” Bueckers said. “This is a process coming back from a major injury, getting my legs under me, getting the rhythm and flow back of playing basketball again. But it’s hard.”
The landscape changed while she rehabbed. South Carolina went undefeated with their Naismith winner, Aliyah Boston. Iowa upset the Gamecocks in the Final Four behind their reigning Naismith winner, Caitlin Clark. LSU, led by Angel Reese, won its first title over Iowa nights later in front of a record-breaking TV audience. Freshmen stepped up into leading roles, as the current freshmen are already doing now. More stars emerged all over the country.
In Connecticut, Bueckers watched from a full bench as UConn struggled with injuries, even postponing a game because it didn’t have the minimum to play. Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class, missed time and the duo that was supposed to bring the Huskies back to their historic title-winning ways rarely played together. She’s healthy now, as is top 2022 recruit Ice Brady, who made her collegiate debut Wednesday after a dislocated patella in her right knee kept her out of last season.
The Huskies missed the Final Four, snapping a record 14-year streak that might never be matched again. The powerhouse hasn’t won a title since Breanna Stewart led them to a fourth straight, and 11th overall, in 2016.
It will take time for Bueckers to be back to form. She has committed to extensive pre-hab, a more healthy lifestyle and the science behind preventing more injuries. Stronger than she was as a freshman, she is an early Player of the Year contender and the key cog to a loaded UConn team that hopes to stay healthier than the previous two campaigns. It’s a team built to where an array of stars can lead the scoring column any night. But Bueckers, even on “bad” nights, makes them exceptionally better.
“The game doesn’t all of a sudden leave you when you haven’t played, but it doesn’t automatically come back that fast, either,” Auriemma said. “I think given that it was the first game, I thought she was what I thought she would be. And she’ll be better on Sunday and she’ll be better on next Thursday.”
Those two matchups will be the first significant tests for No. 2-ranked UConn and Bueckers. They travel to play NC State on Sunday and host Top 25-ranked Maryland on Thursday. A good showing this weekend could put them back into the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll on Monday after No. 1 LSU was upset by Colorado in a double-digit loss on opening night. UConn has not been No. 1 since a five-week stint to end the 2020-21 season. South Carolina opened 2021-22 as the preseason poll’s top team.
The Huskies received one of the 36 first-place AP preseason votes and three of the 32 first-place votes in the USA Today/WBCA Coaches poll. Behind them in the AP poll is Iowa (vs. No. 8 Virginia Tech on Thursday, at Northern Iowa on Sunday), UCLA (vs. UC Riverside on Thursday, Bellarmine on Sunday) and Utah (vs. South Carolina State on Thursday).
The process Bueckers talked about in regard to her return, and the one UConn has in returning to the Final Four are intertwined. And they have little to do with a ranking next week or the week after that.
“We only care about being No. 1 in April,” Bueckers said. “And we have yet to do that since we’ve been here in school.”