Paige Bueckers’ return sparks UConn women’s basketball team to rout of St. John’s: ‘A lot of fun’

Photo of Maggie Vanoni

HARTFORD — The first quarter shot clock was winding down in the background. But that didn’t stop her, and why would it?

Paige Bueckers jumped and released the ball 12 feet from the basket near the top of the key. The ball hit the rim as it went through the net, beating the buzzer. She ran to the UConn student section and threw her arms up, screaming before running into a huddle of her teammates — all just as pumped as she was.

The UConn women’s basketball star had returned.

“It wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t something extra,” Bueckers said about her first shot back. “It was a lot of fun.”

Bueckers played for the first time in 10 weeks in the No. 7 Huskies’ 93-38 win over St. John’s Friday at the XL Center. The sophomore spent the past two and a half months recovering from a tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear.

In 12 minutes, she scored eight points with two rebounds and one assist.

Bueckers was officially cleared to play Thursday after participating in full warm-ups with the team the night before.

“It was more of me being mentally ready to use my knee again to make the same cuts, same movements,” she said. “Over the past week or so, I think shootaround has given me a lot of confidence, just messing with the starters and stuff. ... I was nervous but I was just so excited, so happy. I’ve never been more happy to be on minute restrictions, so just to see my name in the box score with minutes next to it is just surreal to me, amazing to me, just to be back in this position. I’m just grateful for everything that I have.”

At 3:41 in the first quarter and with UConn (21-5, 15-1 Big East) up by 15, Geno Auriemma reached for his bench. He pointed at Dorka Juhász then walked a couple steps more and tapped Bueckers on the knee. She stood up as the crowd began erupting in cheers.

While Auriemma subbed out four of his five starters in the rotation switch, it was Bueckers who was greeted by the biggest applause when her name was announced to the crowd. A handful of “Welcome back Paige” signs waved in the XL Center crowd.

The reigning national player grabbed two rebounds in her first two minutes on the court before ending the period making her first shot attempt in over two months.

Bueckers played five minutes in the first quarter before playing the final 1:50 of the second. By halftime she had four points, two rebounds and one assist in seven minutes.

“I was planning on (playing her) 15 (minutes) and it ended up being 12,” Auriemma said after the game. “And she let me know about it too so I owe her three minutes. … She’s excited, ecstatic and beaming that she’s back to basketball and it was in a game that was a fun game to play in for the most part.”

The sophomore was full of smiles and energy the whole game, including busting out the moon walk during a timeout in the third quarter.

“It’s been tough mentally, physically. I’ve never had to miss out during a season for an injury before so that was definitely new. And I think with me, it doesn’t take a village, it takes villages with how hardheaded and stubborn I am,” Bueckers said. “Both of my doctors, Dr. (Katherine) Coyner and Dr. (Robert) Arciero, (Andrea) Hudy our strength coach, all of my teammates and coaches, I’m just super grateful for them for all they’ve done for me. Just keeping me positive, just being there for me whenever I needed them.”

While Bueckers’ return was the highlight of Friday’s game, freshman Azzi Fudd led with 19 points (5 of 7 from 3 in 20 minutes) in UConn’s most all-around dominating win of the season. Aaliyah Edwards followed Fudd with 16 points and seven rebounds. Three other Huskies finished in double-figures while Evina Westbrook tied her career-high with 10 assists.

The Huskies’ 51 halftime points where their most all season with the team shooting 65% in the first 20 minutes. UConn ended the game with a season-high 27 assists and shot a season-high 63.5% with its largest margin of victory all year. The Huskies held St. John’s (11-17, 7-11) to 26.4% shooting while forcing 19 turnovers.

“The way our team has handled adversity, I don’t think any other team in the country has been through what we’ve been through. We’ve taken a bunch of hits, but the thing about us is we always bounce back. It might take a game or two but we always find a flow, always find a rhythm,” Bueckers said. “It was awesome to see and just for me to get back and try to incorporate myself back into the flow of what they’ve already built.”

UConn will play its final regular season game Sunday against Providence at Gampel Pavilion (2 p.m.). The Huskies will honor seniors Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Westbrook and Juhász before the game. While Juhász will participate in the senior day activities, the graduate transfer from Ohio State has yet to make a decision on whether she will return to Storrs for her final collegiate season.

After Sunday, the Huskies will begin the postseason as the top-seeded team in the Big East Tournament next weekend before the NCAA Tournament starts (Selection Sunday is scheduled for March 13).

“You can really just see the potential in our team now that we have everybody back,” Williams said. “I feel like we’re just firing on all cylinders right now. It couldn’t have been a better time since we have one more game and then the postseason. I’m just really excited to see us get better each and every day.”

UPDATED SPECTATOR POLICY FOR BIG EAST TOURNAMENT

The conference announced Friday it will requite all fans 12-years or older attending next weekend’s Big East Women’s Basketball Tournament to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the start of the tournament for entry into Mohegan Sun Arena each day of the tournament (March 4-7). All fans regardless of vaccination status will be required to wear a mask while inside the arena except when actively eating or drinking.

UConn secured the No. 1 seed in the tournament Wednesday with its win over Marquette and will begin the tournament in the quarterfinals on March 5.

maggie.vanoni@hearstmediact.com