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UConn's Bueckers will have no restrictions as NCAA tourney opener nears

Storrs — The goal for every team is to play its best basketball in the NCAA tournament. But only one team, UConn, is adding the reigning national player of the year to the lineup.

"I think that's pretty significant," UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma said of the return of sophomore Paige Bueckers, who missed 19 games following a left tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear on Dec. 5 in a game against Notre Dame. "Not too many people are going to be able to do that at this time of year."

Bueckers was the consensus national player of the year in 2021, averaging 20 points and 5.8 assists per game as the Huskies reached the Final Four for the 13th straight season. And then UConn played nearly an entire season without her in 2022, mixing and matching its way to a 25-5 record including the Big East Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

As UConn, No. 2 in the Bridgeport Region, gets ready to play No. 15 Mercer at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gampel Pavilion in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Auriemma had some good news about Bueckers, speaking to the media on Selection Sunday.

"We didn't do anything Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (after the Big East tournament), so Friday and Saturday and we did a little workout with (Bueckers) today. She looks really good," Auriemma said.

"I mean, (Andrea) Hudy keeps track of all our numbers in there, the strength coach, and she's been able to track them since October. (Bueckers) is at the same levels she was at before the surgery so that's a great sign."

Bueckers, who returned on Feb. 25 with a game against St. John's at the XL Center but has played no more than 18 minutes in any of the Huskies' five games since, is now dealing mainly with the mental aspect of being able to trust in her rehabilitated left knee.

She had 16 points in 18 minutes in UConn's Big East tournament opener against Georgetown, but tired by the third game in the three days and played just nine minutes and scored two points in the Huskies' Big East championship victory over Villanova. Prior to Saturday's game with Mercer, however, the team will have had 10 days off since its last game.

"That's a horse of a different color. Isn't that what they said in the Wizard of Oz? 'That's a horse of a different color,'" Auriemma said of Bueckers' confidence level. "That is a work in progress. When you come off an injury as severe as the one that Paige had, that's the last thing to come back but each and every day I see more and more of her being her old self physically and mentally and emotionally.

"She still has her moments but she'd be having those moments surgery or no surgery."

With the exception of starting on Senior Day along with the team's four veterans, Bueckers has come off the bench, something Auriemma said may change as she improves her stamina. Bueckers said she is willing to undertake whatever role she is given.

"I'm ready and I'm excited to be anything this team needs me to be to win, whatever it is," she said. "I mean my strength is there, my healing is there, just being able to be confident enough to use it again is the main thing for me. I don't care. Whatever this team needs me to be, off the bench, 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, I'm excited with whatever role."

Auriemma said at the Big East tournament that part of the healing for Bueckers is "the frustration part" and not being able to play with the same set of dynamics she's used to. He said Bueckers needs to realize that at 85%, she's still better than most of those who play college women's basketball.

"Not being able to do it when she wants, on demand, whenever she feels like it, that's a separate issue and that, at some point, you have to adjust to," Auriemma said. "Don't let your frustration get in the way of that. But she's a kid and she's never faced this kind of adversity before. It's a learning process just like it would be for anybody else."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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