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Paige Bueckers’s ACL Tear Is More Than a Blow to UConn’s Title Hopes

In a stunning jolt to the women’s college basketball offseason, the Huskies have already lost their star for 2022–23.

Paige Bueckers sat to her coach’s left with a towel draped over her shoulders, fighting back tears. She was minutes removed from walking off the court at Target Center, a mere 10 miles from where she grew up, having lost in the national championship to South Carolina. While her coach, Geno Auriemma, was similarly disappointed in the result, he had watched for 40 minutes as his group was stifled by the Gamecocks’ swarming defense and over-whelming physicality; he knew full well who the better team was.

Despite having made 14 consecutive Final Four appearances, Auriemma sat at a dais and said it was difficult to predict how next season would go. Still, with his star guard by his side—both literally, and figuratively—he remained hopeful.

“I like our chances,” Auriemma said. “Provided we don’t have to navigate a season like we did this year—knock on wood—if we stay healthy, I expect to be back here next year.”

Paige Bueckers dribbles

Bueckers played in just 17 games as a sophomore due to an injury in the same knee.

Such optimism has already proven too good to be true. On Wednesday, UConn announced that Bueckers sustained a torn ACL in her left knee while playing in a pick-up game (the school did not announce where the injury occurred). She will undergo surgery on Friday and miss the upcoming season.

The injury is, of course, a blow to UConn’s chance to win its first title since 2016 and drastically shrinks its odds of making a 15th consecutive Final Four. But it is more than that. In December Bueckers suffered an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear in the same knee she just tore, which up to this point had been most significant injury of her career. She called that injury “devastating.” Auriemma used the same word to describe this injury as well.

It is so for the Huskies and for Bueckers personally—and for college basketball as a whole, which has been treated to her unmatched shot-making for two seasons and will be without the player with perhaps the sport’s smoothest stroke.

“She’s worked really hard to get stronger and healthier this offseason, and this is an unfortunate setback,” Auriemma said in a statement. “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.”

Throughout her first two seasons in Storrs, Conn., Bueckers has shown regular glimpses of why she was among the most highly touted recruits in recent memory. In her debut campaign, she averaged 20.0 points, 5.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. Sure, she took home various freshman-of-the-year awards, but she was the consensus National Player of the Year as well.

Then she opened last season looking like much the same player. In UConn’s first five games, Bueckers averaged 21 points. Even in the contest that ended with her going down with the first of what is now two major left knee injuries, she had scored 22 and had logged four rebounds and four assists.

Sophomore guard Azzi Fudd, who has been close friends with Bueckers since the two were ages 14 and 15, respectively, said that watching Bueckers collapse to the floor in the final minute against the Fighting Irish made her heart stop. “I felt sick,” Fudd told Sports Illustrated last March. It’s hard to imagine that this news feels any different.

Bueckers was sidelined nearly 12 weeks in 2021–22 due to that left knee injury. And while she watched, UConn struggled. While her absence had the biggest impact on the Huskies’ inconsistent play over the course of the season—their five regular-season defeats were the most of any UConn team that has played in the national championship in Auriemma’s 37-year tenure—eight of the program’s 12 players missed at least two games due to injury or illness. Eleven different starting lineups were employed. “Seeing people do physical therapy and rehab all the time was kinda discouraging, honestly,” guard Christyn Williams told SI last March. All told, that explains why Auriemma was hopeful for good health.

Last summer, Bueckers had offseason surgery for what the school said was to repair an osteochondral defect on her right ankle. (Osteochondral defects are described as joint damage involving the bone and cartilage.) So this summer, having recovered from her prior knee injury, she was even more eager to take part in training and improve her game.

Among other facets, in recent months Bueckers was open about her desire to get stronger. She told reporters at a recent charity golf outing that she no longer wanted to “get thrown around,” adding, “I want to be able to hold my ground and be able to withstand whatever any defense throws at me.” Andrea Hudy, UConn women’s basketball director of sports performance, recently told The Athletic that Bueckers has added 10 pounds of this offseason.

“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 wrote in a statement posted to Instagram.

But such is the new reality for Bueckers, for UConn and for the sport as a whole.

“Some little kid that just tore their ACL or had a major surgery might need this story … because it’s going to be one hell of a comeback,” she wrote.

It won’t take place this year. But who’s to doubt her?

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