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Heather Buck eyes the finish line

By Vickie Fulkerson

Publication: The Day

Published 02/23/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 02/23/2013 11:50 PM
Despite early heartbreak, injuries, Stonington High star never lost her focus, team spirit at UConn

Storrs - The first hint of the bad news that underscored the start of Heather Buck's freshman year at UConn came in just her second week of classes.

While walking home from a chemistry lab on a Tuesday night, Buck, a nursing major and member of the women's basketball team, learned that one of her grandmothers had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"There were six of us all walking up the road together," Buck said, recalling that moment in the fall, 2008. "I was with these girls I barely know and I was standing there shocked and started crying. That was how it started."

Soon, Buck lost her grandmother, Meg Wadsworth, who had divided her time between Stonington borough and Venice, photographing the architecture and the landscapes of Italy and then coming home to recreate them in clay. On the night of Wadsworth's death, Buck borrowed teammate Kaili McLaren's car and sped home to sit with her grandmother one last time.

Shortly afterward, her father, David, underwent surgery to remove cancerous tonsils, which also required chemotherapy and radiation and rendered him unable to eat.

And then, with just one career exhibition game behind her as a member of the Huskies, Buck contracted mononucleosis. The UConn coaching staff decided she would redshirt her freshman season and maintain four years of eligibility.

"It was just a lot to handle," the Stonington High graduate recalled. "You're a freshman and you're living on your own. My first semester of my freshman year was just sucky, like 'Welcome to college.' A lot happened. I feel like the way it happened all at once, it's hard to say it made it better, but I was so overloaded, there was no time to be like, 'Oh, this is miserable.' It was more like, 'Wow. All right. I don't even know what to say.'"

Now 22, Stonington's all-time leading scorer in girls' basketball with 2,205 points is getting ready to graduate this spring with a degree in nursing, the five years at UConn nearly behind her. She's been part of two national championship teams, has attended the Final Four all four years and has been on team trips to Italy, Cancun, the Virgin Islands and Los Angeles for the ESPY Awards.

Over the years, as more star players were recruited, Buck's playing time diminished. A 6-foot-3 center/forward, she plays just five minutes per game, averaging less than a point per game, the lowest totals of her career. Nevertheless, she calls this her "most happy" year at UConn.

"I love the program. I love everything here," she said. "What happened, happened. This is where we are."

Today, Buck and her parents will take part in senior night, a stirring UConn tradition that marks the final regular-season game at the Huskies' on-campus home, Gampel Pavilion. In just her second career start, Buck will join two other seniors in the starting lineup against Seton Hall.

"… I've had a lot of fun on the court this year. I really enjoyed my rotations for (nursing) clinical. I love my teammates - well, I've always loved them, but I love them still. I'm just happy all the time," Buck said. "I'm ignoring the fact it's senior night so I don't have to be upset. It's very bittersweet; I'm leaving the place I've called home. It's sad. But it's time."

Buck said she realizes that in the scheme of things, her setbacks have been minor.

"She certainly is resilient," her mother, Mayada Wadsworth, said. "But that's something we knew. That's been a longtime character trait."

"She's the same person, only with depth to that," her father said this week. "The same person, but with a wealth of experience. … And she likes to shop more."

High school jazz and hoops

David Buck is a construction foreman who builds sets for television and movies, including the 2010 film "The Town," set in Boston and directed by Ben Affleck. His most recent project, set in New Orleans, is "12 Years a Slave," starring Brad Pitt and featuring recent 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis.

So it was that Buck, although he's usually not on the set at the same time as the cast, once got actor Kevin Bacon's autograph for his daughter, who hung it in her room. One day, while Heather was doing homework with some middle school friends, they asked her where she got Bacon's signature.

Her father, who tells the story with a laugh at the slight exaggeration, overheard her say, "My dad works with him."

David Buck, who is 6-foot-5, and Mayada Wadsworth, 6-1, have been married for 35 years, moving from Long Island to Hyde Street in Stonington borough in 1979. They raised both their children there - Matt, born in 1983 and Heather seven years later - before buying a 22-acre sheep farm on Greenhaven Road in Pawcatuck in 2010.

Without Heather's interest in basketball, which developed while she was in elementary school, the Bucks don't have much of a sports background. Heather, who played the upright bass in the high school jazz band, attended Shakespeare in the Park in Westerly more times than she saw the Stonington High football team play, according to her mother.

The family had no cable television - Heather watched her first NCAA tournament selection show when she got to UConn. But that's how UConn came into the picture as a destination for her college career. Huskies games were shown on CPTV, one of the few channels the Bucks could receive clearly in their Hyde Street home.

"After seeing the first game on television, it was like, 'Ohh. That's what you're supposed to do,'" David Buck said.

He said it was the Stonington community, beginning with Heather's start in a youth league at the Stonington Community Center, that got her to UConn.

"She's like a sponge. She took it all in," said Wadsworth, who works at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic. "… We go to all the (UConn) home games now. It's good basketball. Even we can tell it's good basketball."

A promising beginning

There was a time, during Heather Buck's redshirt year, when all she could do was practice, that UConn Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma was impressed with what he saw as great potential.

"She has up and down days just like everybody else, but she's improving every day," Auriemma said on Selection Monday that season. "She can play at this level and she knows it. Every day in practice, she learns more and more about herself."

There also was the time in 2010 that Buck defended 6-8 Baylor star Brittney Griner for eight minutes better than maybe anyone ever has, entering the game with UConn trailing 56-48 in the midst of a 79-game winning streak and willing the Huskies to a 65-64 win.

No Buck, no NCAA record 90-game winning streak.

But later, Auriemma would deem her "unconfident." And Buck really didn't argue the point. She admitted she cried every time she went into Auriemma's office for the first three-plus years.

There were ill-timed injuries, one to her wrist after another strong performance against Baylor in 2011. And there was a steady stream of national high school players of the year heading to UConn.

To date, Buck has played in 114 games for UConn, which currently is ranked third in the country with a record of 24-2. Her record includes 206 career points, 230 rebounds, 37 assists, 38 steals and 48 blocked shots.

Said Auriemma this week of the fifth-year senior: "Heather has been an amazing teammate. I can't say enough about what she has meant to our team and our coaching staff. Heather is everything a coach wants in a person."

A commitment honored

People sometimes tell Wadsworth that her daughter should play more.

"I say, 'Don't tell me. I want her to play, too,'" Wadsworth said.

But that doesn't mean Buck, who sheepishly described herself as loyal, ever would have left her teammates for greener pastures. Or that she harbored any deep resentment toward the program.

"Coach is cool. I'm cool. It's awesome," Buck said. "When I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it. I made a commitment to the team.

"I'm not going to score 15 points a game and get six blocks and 10 rebounds. People can say that should have been your job. But that's not my role. Even now, I would be so happy for that to be my role, but my role is to push Breanna (Stewart) and Stef (Dolson) and Kiah (Stokes) and Morgan (Tuck). Just work as hard as I can on every play and hopefully it will make them better."

Things have gone better for Buck in the classroom. She finished last semester with a 4.0 grade point average and has a job waiting at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford - where she was assigned in the fall - if she wants it.

"She comes home and she bursts out of the car and says, 'I can't wait to be a nurse,'" David Buck said. "The enthusiasm is huge."

Since entering UConn, Buck also has endured the death of her other grandmother. One of Lavinia Buck's last directives to her granddaughter before she died in February 2012 was "You've got a game tomorrow!" as Buck was readying to leave for Oklahoma with the Huskies. She suffered along with her mother, many times via phone, through her father's cancer treatment.

And yet she's still the Heather Buck that southeastern Connecticut remembers.

"I'm 100 percent proud of Heather," Stonington High girls' basketball coach Paulla Solar said recently. "She went to college with all these obstacles, herself getting sick, and was able to pull herself through all that."

Added Wadsworth of her daughter: "She's got great spirit."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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