Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
BRIDGEPORT — A player was on the ground and in tears. She struggled to get up, sobbing in pain. Otherwise, the arena was silent. Her UConn teammates saw a sister down with a devastating injury.
It was hard to discern the emotion inside Paige Bueckers when Dorka Juhasz went down with what appeared to be a compound wrist fracture, an injury Juhasz suffered on a drive to the basket following an offensive rebound early in the second quarter in the Elite Eight against NC State on Monday night. She was fouled on the play and fell directly on her left wrist. Teammates Nika Muhl and Evina Westbrook tried to hold in their tears. Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s face showed fear, her eyes wide, her stare deep.
For Bueckers, something clicked into gear. After scoring just four points in the first half, she exploded for 23 in the second half in UConn’s 91-87 double-overtime epic versus top-seeded NC State. Bueckers finished with 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting in a game that had head coach Geno Auriemma acknowledging her new place among some UConn legends.
Losing a player in dramatic fashion was par for the course for UConn during the 2021-22 season. The Huskies lost Bueckers for almost three months after she hyperextended her knee on Dec. 5 in a win against Notre Dame.
Now, this was happening again, and there was only one thing Bueckers and her teammates could do. After going through the motions the rest of the second quarter, the Huskies left the floor with a 34-28 lead. Bueckers had only scored four points on 2-of-6 shooting.
According to senior Christyn Williams, Auriemma explained the shift in mindset had to be to win the game for the fallen Juhasz. It was what the entire team and especially Bueckers thought about for the second half and the two overtime periods that followed.
What ensued following the emotional second quarter was a performance from Bueckers that hadn’t been on display since before she suffered a tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear. She was aggressive, scoring 23 points following the second quarter on 8-of-9 shooting. She made eight shots in a row from the third quarter through the second overtime period in a game that was a tit-for-tat classic.
Her performance was arguably the most important of her career, proving more meaningful than any of her Instagram-able highlights from her high school career and her Naismith College Player of the Year freshman season.
How did Bueckers get from point A, moving gingerly against Indiana in Saturday’s Sweet 16 matchup, to point B, scoring 27 points and sending her team back to its 14th straight Final Four?
“During the game, especially during crunch time, in close games like that I just try to stay composed, try to keep being that leader for my team and just play with poise and play with calmness,” Bueckers said. “It’s easy to get flustered and sort of let your mind take over, and like I said, just get flustered when they’re in close games like that. There’s a lot going on. And then just finding a way to win. That’s the main goal of basketball, and I want to win every game I play in.”
But staying composed and patient with herself throughout the rehab process was a challenge for the sophomore. She struggled with the sadness that comes with being isolated and not being able to play. She noted on Sunday’s pregame presser that it was her teammates and especially her closest friend on the team, Azzi Fudd, who helped her stay grounded and positive.
During the few months and 19 total games that she missed, Bueckers developed a patience that could temper her stubbornness. She wanted to play so badly but understood that taking her rehabilitation one day at a time would allow her the best shot at returning to who she was before her surgery.
Senior Evina Westbrook reminisced back to the time before Bueckers’ injury, acknowledging what her team looked like and how an overreliance on Bueckers was a systemic issue.
“We don’t need that one person to play for us,” she told B/R. “I think that’s what it kind of was and kind of looked like at the beginning of the season. We’re just so used to like, ‘Well, we know she’s going to make it, so you know just let her do it.'”
While Bueckers recovered, her teammates took it upon themselves to improve, gain their own confidence and function without their star scorer.
How did the Huskies adjust? What did that look like?
For senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, losing Bueckers and other players to injury led to inner reflection. She asked herself questions: What do I need to contribute? What will help this team win?
“I think we all had a moment where we had to really think about that for ourselves,” she said. “And I think that’s when we started just coming together and realizing, ‘OK, look, if I bring this and that and somebody else brings this, and we just kind of figure out a way to make it flow and work, we can be successful.'”
But was all of that null and void after Bueckers’ heroics Monday night? Not necessarily.
What made Bueckers so effective was how she was able to read the NC State defense and pick the spots where she knew she had the most open or makeable shot. For her to get those looks, the other four players alongside her had to set the right screens and move off the ball rather than just stand around and watch. Bueckers had the space to create because of the work that Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards did as screeners and the commitment Fudd had to cutting along the baseline to free an open lane.
When Bueckers was gone, UConn had to raise its level of play. But when she returned at the end of February, it was clear that her presence raised the team’s play even more.
“Thank God Paige came back; she gives everyone so much confidence, and everyone just kind of played and everyone took turns making plays,” Auriemma told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after the game.
The confidence that Bueckers brings to her teammates regardless of if she’s 100 percent healthy was reminiscent of a similar vintage performance the women’s basketball world saw this past fall. Diana Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury defeated the Las Vegas Aces in dramatic fashion in Game 5 of the WNBA Semifinals, a game in which Taurasi scored 24 points on 7-of-14 shooting, including a fourth quarter when she went 4-of-5. When asked if Bueckers’ Elite Eight performance parallels at all to Taurasi, Auriemma was hesitant to compare players.
He remarked that he hasn’t seen anyone else play with the type of “resolve” and “toughness” amid the number of injuries that Taurasi has endured. As of now, Bueckers doesn’t have the history of battling through injury time and again like the former UConn legend.
But he did acknowledge the shared qualities between Taurasi and Bueckers.
They both are gym rats, adore competing, aspire to compete at everything and believe they are the best at what they do. “I’ve seen D do what Paige did tonight,” he said. “I saw it at home. We were playing TCU, and we were down at halftime. D had 31 in the game and just took over the entire second half and made sure we won.”
On Monday night, Bueckers made sure the Huskies won.
When the final buzzer sounded following the second overtime period, the injured Juhasz, who had appeared in a sling and had her left wrist wrapped in gauze, walked over to center court to meet her teammates that had been on the floor.
It happened in an instant: The entire team surrounded her and enveloped her in a hug. And following the center-court meetup came Bueckers. She was ready to let her emotions rain.
“We got this, we got this for you,” Bueckers shouted while embracing Juhasz with tears in her eyes.