HARTFORD, Conn. — Paige Bueckers, the 2021 national player of the year who tore her ACL in August 2022, returned to action Wednesday, helping No. 2 UConn start its season with a 102-58 win over Dayton at the XL Center.
In her first game in 584 days, Bueckers finished with 8 points on 3-for-9 shooting with 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal in 21 minutes before sitting the entire fourth quarter.
“In my opinion it was a bad game for me,” Bueckers said, “but I’m grateful to have a bad game right now.”
“The game doesn’t all of a sudden leave you when you haven’t played, but it also doesn’t automatically come back that fast, either,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma added. “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 next Thursday.”
A bad game by Bueckers standards still had highlights. The former All-American, who also battled knee injuries her sophomore season, started and looked comfortable with the game’s physicality, seeking contact from the jump with several drives to the basket, where she ended up on the floor, and was active on the glass throughout the night.
“She wants to feel what it feels like to get hit, so she put herself in those situations a lot today,” Auriemma said.
Bueckers scored 6 of her 8 points in the first quarter, when she played nine of her 21 minutes. She saw the court for only 11 minutes in UConn’s exhibition game Saturday.
Auriemma thought Bueckers was so anxious to play and “so far ahead of herself … [wanting to] get the whole year back on each possession” that she was trying so hard to do everything.
But UConn didn’t have to rely heavily on her Wednesday, jumping to a big lead early over Dayton while playing 10 players at least 10 minutes. Aaliyah Edwards led all scorers with 23 points, and six Huskies scored in double figures.
That depth and balance is “the beauty of this team,” said Bueckers, who as a freshman shouldered a significant amount of the scoring responsibility as she led UConn to the Final Four.
“We know that as a team, we have a lot of weapons, and it’s not a one-man team where somebody has to carry more of the load than others,” she added. “It’s a very equal and well-balanced team.”
Though it was Bueckers’ first game back, that didn’t stop Auriemma from laying into her on the bench after making a mistake on defense or being what he considered undisciplined.
“She says she likes when I yell at her, so I just want to keep her happy,” Auriemma quipped.
Added Bueckers: “Last year, sitting on the bench, I would have done anything just to be out there and get yelled at.”
The redshirt junior will have her next opportunity to get back into a flow when the Huskies visit NC State on Sunday for their first major nonconference test.
“I’m still learning how to give myself grace. I’m not ignorant enough to think that it’s going to be a linear trajectory this whole time,” Bueckers said. “I’m super grateful in the fact that I get to go try again on Sunday and be even better on Sunday.”