By Arnie Leshin
The news spread through the University of Connecticut and women’s college basketball.
All-America point guard Paige Bueckers suffers season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in a pick-up basketball game Wednesday.
At UConn, where she will begin her junior year, it’s a huge loss, a big letdown for a team in quest of a record 12th national Division I championship and the expected key challenge for defending champion South Carolina.
Last year, the 5-foot-11 Player of the Year as a freshman, returned after an early season knee injury late in the win at home against Notre Dame required surgery and she was sidelined until coming back and helping gain the title game versus the Gamecocks that resulted in a 7-point loss.
Before that, she contributed to a quarterfinal win over 3rd-ranked North Carolina State and a win over 2nd-ranked Stanford.
An MRI late Wednesday night confirmed the ACL tear.
“I’m devasted,” she said, “I need to depend now on my faith to survive this mentally, and physically I have to just carry on and recover.”
An update on the injury concurs it’s the same knee that she injured (tibial plateau) the previous season. She spent her time on the sidelines as a team cheerleader and brought confidence to the squad until she was able to practice with it and come back at perhaps 90 percent.
“It’s so crazy,” she said, “because you work so hard to get back healthy, you feel stranger than ever doing so. Then you have a real good summer, decide to play some pick-up ball, and boom, down you go again.”
In her freshman year with the Huskies, the High School Player of the Year at Hopkins High in Minnesota was the first freshman to earn the honor, averaging 20.1 points scoring, dishing out six assists per game, coming away with 3.3 steals, and bringing down six rebounds a game.
Last year, she worked her way back with 14.6 points, 4.6 assists, three assists, and four boards after missing 19 games.
Said head coach Geno Auriemma: “We’re all devasted by this. She’s worked oh so hard to get back to full strength, and this is just unfortunate for someone who is not only a star on the court but a great person and teammate.”
Auriemma has been the UConn head coach through all 11 previous NCAA championships. As he did last season, he had pieced together another all-star lineup with two genuine top recruits in nationally 4th-rated 6-2 Ayanna Patterson and fifth-rated 6-3 Ismech (Ice) Brady.
He was returning two of his leading scorers in 5-11 sophomore Azzi Fudd and 6-2 junior Caroline Ducharme, plus 6-3 junior starter forward Aakiyah Edwards, returning previous 6-1 starter Aubrey Griffin, a senior who started as a sophomore, returning 5-10 junior guard Nika Muhl, 6-5 sophomore forward Amari DeBerry, and 6-5 graduate senior Dorka Juhasz.
With the two quality recruits and this group, UConn figured to be one of the best in the land again, but the bottom line is not to count Auriemma out, for he always puts a talented team on the court. Fudd, High School Player of the Year after Bueckers, will no doubt be the starting point guard, and she’s also a top-notch outside shooter.
Muhl will also handle the playmaking duties, Edwards will provide the rebounding, DeBerry can also toss up 3s, and Juhasz has the experience underneath, runs the floor well, and can also throw up outside shots.
But without Bueckers, it somehow takes the air out of the Huskies’ offensive game, and without her we still have a top 10 or better team.