UConn women’s basketball star Paige Bueckers to miss season with torn ACL

Photo of Mike Anthony
UConn guard Paige Bueckers injured her knee in a pick-up basketball game

UConn guard Paige Bueckers injured her knee in a pick-up basketball game

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

Paige Bueckers has torn the ACL in her left knee and will miss the 2022-23 season, the latest and most devastating setback in her celebrated existence with the UConn women’s basketball team.

The news came Wednesday from UConn, one of those gut-wrenching announcements out of the thick summer air with a statement from coach Geno Auriemma that stole the breath of a basketball community.

Bueckers, UConn said, was injured Monday during a pick-up game, with confirmation via MRI coming later in the day. She is scheduled for surgery Friday at UConn Health. Soon after, perhaps early next week, a recovery timetable will be available.

But Bueckers is certainly out for the upcoming season — an absence that greatly complicates the Huskies’ national championship aspirations and may even cloud the future for one of the game’s brightest young stars. She missed 19 games last season with separate injuries in the same knee.

“It’s so so crazy because you work so hard to get back healthy, you feel stronger than ever, and you are playing your best basketball and with one sudden movement it all shifts,” Bueckers, 20, wrote on Instagram. “It’s hard trying to make sense of it all now but I can’t help but think that God is using me as a testimony as to how much you can overcome with Him by your side. Some little kid that just tore their ACL or had a major surgery might need this story P, because it’s going to be one hell of a comeback. There is going to be good days and there is going to be bad days but my absolute love for the game and Godly strength will get me back to where I need to be.”

Bueckers’ anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear required surgery and sidelined her for more than two months of the 2021-22 season, one during which the Huskies were decimated by injury up and down the roster.

Bueckers’ March brilliance helped UConn navigate another NCAA Tournament to the national championship game. She famously scored 27 points in an Elite Eight double-overtime victory over NC State, pulling the Huskies into a 14th consecutive Final Four. But days after a championship game loss to South Carolina, Auriemma said he considered Bueckers’ sophomore season “A wash. It was a washout, unfortunately.”

This summer was to be about strengthening, proper rest, doing anything to assure a healthy junior season. But another freak happenstance of basketball, perhaps aided by all the stress her lower body has endured in recent years, has again served as cruel interruption.

“We’re all devastated for Paige,” Auriemma said in the statement. “She’s worked really hard to get stronger and healthier this offseason, and this is an unfortunate setback. Paige is obviously an amazing basketball player but she’s a better person and teammate and it’s really unfortunate that this has happened to her. We’ll miss her presence on the court, but she’ll do everything she can to still lead and help her teammates this season. Our program will support Paige through her healing process to help her come back better and stronger.”

Bueckers is expected to return to play at UConn for the 2023-24 season and retains NCAA eligibility for 2024-25, too, due to the NCAA granting an extra season to student-athletes who played through the the pandemic season of 2020-21. She can likely continue to make a comfortable living through name, image and likeness deals during her recovery and thereafter, eventually finishing her work towards a bachelor’s degree and even a master’s before leaving UConn — where she’s had a rewarding and challenging experience.

Bueckers limped down the stretch of her senior season at Hopkins High School in Minnesota — sometimes wearing a boot and skipping practices, sitting out at least one state playoff game — while dealing with pain in the shins, essential from overuse.

She arrived at UConn at the height of the pandemic and put together one of the best seasons by a freshman in the sport’s history in the virtually-empty gyms of 2020-21, averaging 20 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 and 36.2 minutes. Bueckers became the first freshman to sweep the following national player of the year awards: the Wooden Award, the Naismith Trophy, AP Player of the Year and USBWA Player of the Year.

But she lost most of the following offseason to recovery from ankle surgery, using crutches for months to make her way around the Werth Champions Center. As a sophomore, she was limited after her long absence, finishing with averages of 14.6 points, four rebounds and 3.9 assists.

Auriemma stressed early this offseason the importance of Bueckers developing additional overall strength, not only to fully recover but to absorb the beating her style of play, and the way she is defended, leads to. He suggested she remain on campus to work with the athletic training and strength and conditioning staffs at UConn.

Then came Monday’s injury, and Wednesday’s announcement.

A peace sign emoji followed her Instagram post. When Bueckers chose to share her thoughts, less than an hour after UConn’s announcement, her words were instantaneously accessible to her 1 million-plus followers on Instagram.

Bueckers is one of the most visible players in the entire sport, at the forefront of the NIL era with a brand that has transcended basketball. Backed by the powerful Wasserman agency, she has signed numerous lucrative deals — Gatorade, StockX and Crocs among them — and is one of the most marketable athletes in college sports.

Bueckers came to UConn as the No. 1 recruit in the high school class of 2020, and perhaps the most celebrated girl’s high school player in history. She was on the cover of Slam Magazine. A documentary crew trailed her every move. She led Hopkins to an undefeated state championship as a junior in 2019 and the team was undefeated again before the 2020 championship game was canceled due to COVID-19. She was named Gatorade’s 2020 basketball player and of the year and national athlete of the year.

Then she essentially took over the basketball world, one no-look pass and clutch shot at a time. She was named best college athlete at the ESPY Awards, and used that platform to empower others and shine more of a spotlight on the Black community.

Bueckers’ absence creates a unique void for one of America’s most talented teams.

Sophomore shooting guard Azzi Fudd, herself a No. 1 national recruit in the class that followed Bueckers’, lost much of her freshman 2021-22 season to a foot injury. She played four games before being sidelined until late January, averaging 12.1 points and 27.9 minutes overall.

Fudd, still battling through some foot complications as recently as June, now emerges as the team’s clear-cut top perimeter scoring option — though without the nation’s top point guard, and one of her best friends, by her side.

Fudd has recent experience with what Bueckers faces. She was named Gatorade national high school player of the year as a sophomore at St. John’s College High but soon sustained a torn ACL and MCL in her right knee, enduring a long and grueling rehabilitation process.

Guards Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook, who accounted for a combined 23.2 points a game as seniors last season, are gone. Junior Nika Mühl, also a junior and exceptionally close with Bueckers, will see her role increase as it has in Bueckers’ absence in the past.

The addition of Lou Lopez Sénéchal, a grad transfer from Fairfield and an elite shooter in four years at the mid-major level, takes on even more importance. Sophomore guard/forward Caroline Ducharme, who carried UConn at times when it was most depleted last season, is recovering from April hip surgery. Her continued development will be key.

UConn, if whole, might have been the preseason No. 1 ranked team in the nation. Bueckers is young enough for this to, ultimately, be nothing more than a blip on the radar. For now, it’s devastating.

Many players — including Sue Bird, who tore an ACL as a UConn freshman — have gone on to storied careers after this type of injury. Others, like Shea Ralph, have had one freak setback after the next until their careers were derailed.

“I’ve worked too hard for the little kid in these pictures to keep going for the dreams I’ve had since I first picked up the ball, so why would I stop now?” Bueckers wrote in her Instagram post. “The prayers and love means so much to me and the doubts that I won’t get back to where I was might mean even more. God put a dream in my heart and even if I have to walk through a nightmare to get it I’m going to keep believing. All love, P.”