Paige Bueckers Is Back, and Maybe Better Than Ever

It had been some 18 months since Paige Bueckers did this—since the guard took over a close game, running the offense, bending the score to her will. But she didn’t look remotely out of practice on Thursday.

This was both reminder and rejoinder. If you’re tired of hearing about how Bueckers is finally back, well, there’s no need to keep listening. She can just show you instead.

Bueckers scored 24 with six steals in No. 8 UConn’s 80–48 win over No. 20 Maryland. It was the former National Player of the Year’s first statement win since missing all of last season with a torn ACL. And it provided a boost to a Huskies squad that needed one.

Buckers scored 24 points, but also impressed on defense, coming up with six steals in the win over the Terps.

Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY Sports

This was about as tense as a situation possibly gets for UConn in November. The Huskies already saw their ranking tumble after Week 1 thanks to a surprising loss to NC State. They have a tough non-conference schedule ahead—including a matchup next week against No. 3 UCLA and one shortly after against No. 11 Texas—and they could ill afford to drop a game here. But they announced shortly before tip-off they would be without Azzi Fudd, their star junior guard, who sustained a knee injury this week in practice. Their margin for error got even slimmer.

This was especially true against a strong Maryland team interested in redemption of its own coming off a tough loss against No. 1 South Carolina. That manifested in a close first quarter. And it twisted when Bueckers hit the deck after a hard poke to the eye. The broadcast showed her on the bench a few minutes later, ice pack clasped to her swollen eye socket, watching as UConn’s slim lead began to melt away. Midway through the second quarter, she’d had enough.

Bueckers checked back in. The game swung within a few minutes. The 6’ 0” guard is not exactly physically imposing—though she’s put on enough muscle to retire her childhood nickname of “Olive Oyl”—but her presence is intimidating all the same. She cuts through defenses with astonishing dexterity, a nimble, efficient scorer from all over the floor. Bueckers facilitates, too. But when it’s called for—when she feels she has no other choice—she can take over on her own completely. Which is what she did toward the end of this second quarter, best captured by an 81-second stretch in which Bueckers’ was the only name listed in UConn’s portion of the play-by-play, with seven points, two steals and a rebound.

Bueckers scored 11 of the Huskies’ last 13 points of the half. They went to the locker room up by 15 and never looked back.

This is Bueckers at her best: It’s what she came to UConn to do. She has not been able to play a full season since her freshman year, in 2020–21, missing much of the following season with a knee injury before tearing her ACL in August ‘22. There was a very real question of how she would look after such a fractured last few years. UConn coach Geno Auriemma had been insisting that Bueckers would be not just back but better than ever. Against Maryland, at least, that didn’t feel like hyperbole. Her injuries cast no shadow; Bueckers was physical and fearless all night long.

This made her defensive highlights as compelling as her offensive ones. That was perhaps clearest on a block in the third quarter. Bueckers swatted the ball several rows into the stands and let herself yell in clear, cathartic jubilation.

Back? Yes. And as for better than ever? Bueckers sure looked the part on Thursday. 

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Title: Paige Bueckers Is Back, and Maybe Better Than Ever
Author: Emma Baccellieri

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