How will the UConn women’s basketball team react to the loss of Paige Bueckers? ‘We got it’

Photo of Paul Doyle

STORRS — Paige Bueckers spread the news to her UConn women’s basketball teammates through a group text.

The message landed all over the world, to the players summering nearby to those spending time with family in Europe. Bueckers, the heart and soul and face of the program, had an ACL injury.

“It was 5 a.m. in the morning in my country,” said Nika Muhl, who was home in Croatia. “And I woke up and I started crying. I started sobbing. I called her, I FaceTimed her and she was making me feel better.”

Bueckers tore her ACL while playing a pickup game at the UConn practice facility on Aug. 1. Four days later, she had surgery and her season was over before it began.

Outside Geno Auriemma’s program, the injury was earth-shaking: UConn would lose the best player in the country and expectations would recalibrate.

Inside, the players experienced the five stages of grief in real time. Teammates comforted Bueckers, Bueckers comforted teammates; there was advice from those who experienced the same injury and the focus soon shifted.

The players said Thursday that Bueckers’ maturity and attitude have allowed them to move beyond the injury. UConn was saddled with injuries last season — including the loss of Bueckers for 19 games due to a knee injury — and managed to bob and weave to the national title game.

Why should this year be different?

Ask Paige.

“Last year we were underdogs and we made it to the national championship game, so I think we play better and we do better with a chip on our shoulder and when we have a lot to prove,” Bueckers said. “And I know a lot of people are already counting us out. So I’m excited. I know this team knows our potential, I know our potential, Coach knows our potential.

“We have really big things ahead of us ... we have great talent. You know, the best talent in the world, the best coaching staff in the world. So I’m excited for them to show the world what they can be.”

Bueckers projected her usual calmness and confidence as she spoke to the media Thursday. She insisted she will return to UConn for the 2023-24 season even though she is eligible for next year’s WNBA draft. She talked about serving as a de facto assistant coach — Muhl used the phrase “hype man on the bench” to describe her friend’s role — and she said there is no temptation to accelerate her return.

Her service to her team is just being herself. She’ll be supportive and vocal in practice and on the bench during games; she’ll continue to be a leader for a roster with four first-year players and students arriving from six countries.

Dorka Juhasz, who was home in Hungary when she woke up to Bueckers’ text last month, suffered a horrific wrist injury during UConn’s NCAA Tournament double-overtime win over NC State in the Elite Eight in March. Bueckers scored 15 of her 27 points in the overtime periods to will UConn to the Final Four.

After the game, amid the celebration in Bridgeport, Bueckers huddled the team around Juhasz and kissed her friend’s forehead.

“She’s the best,” Juhasz said. “I mean, it’s hard to put it into words because, like, obviously, what you guys see from the outside is who she is. And she’s even more behind the scenes, just making sure we all have everything. She’s always there for us and even at those moments, she came to me, she gave me a kiss on the forehead and said that she’s doing this for me, to go out there and score so many points and won that game.

“So she’s just an awesome teammate, and also just person. She just does so much more than you can even imagine. I mean, that’s just who you are and who she is. Obviously with her whole recovery, I have no doubt that she’s going to come back stronger because she kind of like loves basketball so much that it’s never going to be an issue for her to wake up early, do her rehab and all of the little things. But I know that she’s going to be the best teammate on the bench while she can’t play.”

Bueckers was with Aubrey Griffin, Caroline Ducharme, Amari DeBerry and freshman Ice Brady when she suffered the injury. Brady said Bueckers was driving for a layup when her knee buckled under her.

Her teammates were unsure what happened, but Bueckers knew it was serious.

“Obviously when we got the results back, it was very devastating,” Brady said. “But she’s strong. She’s been doing her thing. I’m excited for her. I think it’s a very motivating story.”

DeBerry and Ducharme drove Bueckers to her MRI appointment. Those first few days were spent joking, making TikToks together, just being college kids.

“We have a similar humor so once we get going, it kinda just keeps rolling,” DeBerry said. “It’s kinda hard to explain. She’s definitely a great friend to have around and I’m glad that I can do whatever I can to help her feel better in whatever way.”

DeBerry, whom teammates call the funniest person in the group, said she and Bueckers bring out each other’s goofy side.

But that was only part of the process as Bueckers processed her injury.

“We were talking about journaling more, like in the Bible, and just our thoughts and that’s also helpful, too,” DeBerry said.

With teammates scattered across the world, Bueckers’ mother asked for videos.

“A little pep talk for her, so I was just telling her once I come back I’ll give you a huge hug, a squeeze, be there for you,” Juhasz said.

Juhasz talked about her own experience with an ACL tear in 2017. Azzi Fudd, Griffin and Ducharme also had the injury in high school, so Bueckers can rely on teammates for advice.

“I know there are bad days, as well, not just good days,” Juhasz said. “So on those days, she has to lean on us. We’re going to continue being there for her throughout her recovery and I know that she’s going to be, literally, the best teammate on the bench while she can’t play. … Obviously, she cares a lot for us. I think we all respect her so much and her input and view of basketball so we’re all going to listen to her. I think she’s going to be a great addition as an assistant coach and cheerleader and whatever we need. I know we can count on her.”

Fudd was home when Bueckers called her with the news about the injury.

“My stomach just dropped, I got this really sick feeling,” she said. “I kind of think Paige is invincible sometimes. I just never thought that would happen to her. And I kind of got mad at her. I was like, ‘I tore my ACL, you’re not supposed to tear yours as well.’ ... But it was kind of just a sad moment.”

Bueckers was loud and animated on the bench last year, but it was different. She held out hope of returning for the NCAA Tournament and she did, so there was a tangible end point to her rehabilitation.

This time, Bueckers knows she will not play this season. Still, her experience sitting and watching last year is providing a source of strength as she approaches this season.

Muhl said her takeaway from the past month is how Bueckers — who turns 21 in October — has used her injuries as a vehicle for personal growth.

“She told me that she really stepped out of her comfort zone that first time then; now she’s ready for anything,” Muhl said. “I was so mind-blown because obviously, this injury is worse than the first one. She’s out for the whole season so I was just like, ‘Wow, you’re maturing.’ She’s growing up. It’s so amazing to see my friend, my sister, deal with something that’s so hard to deal with for any person in the world. … I was very pleasantly surprised and I’m very proud of her for that.”

Bueckers’ injury was part of a theme last season. Only Evina Westbrook and Aaliyah Edwards appeared in every game, as UConn absorbed injuries and illnesses that forced players to fill multiple roles.

The absence of Bueckers this season will impact the team on and off the court. Without the starting point guard, Muhl will step into a bigger role, and others — such as Ducharme and Fudd — will likely handle the ball more.

Fudd, the top Class of 2021 recruit, figures to become the focal point of the offense. A gifted scorer capable of making shots in the paint or from behind the arc, Fudd will draw added attention from opponents.

But Fudd said that will be a mistake.

“I think last year with all of our injuries, I think that everyone kind of got that chance to play and to grow their confidence,” Fudd said. “So I feel like everyone on our team — I mean, except for the freshmen who are new — but I feel like everyone else has some experience from last year and some confidence going into the year. So I feel like everyone is a weapon ...

“I think it gives us confidence just knowing what we’re capable of, that we made it through last year. We fell short of what our ultimate goal was; still, we made it so far and we overcame so much stuff, so many injuries, so many things that could have gone wrong did go wrong. So kind of knowing that Paige being out right now is not the end of the world, she’ll be back ... and knowing that we’ve got each other now.”

There was a team meeting Wednesday. Auriemma’s message was that the team will simply have to work harder.

Muhl returned to campus from Croatia this week. She was pleased to see teammates in the gym, working out, training, with a positive vibe running through the practice facility.

“Beast mode,” she said about the team’s state.

“I feel like if last year we didn’t go what we went through, we wouldn’t be mentally so tough right now,” Muhl said. “Everybody knows here how tough it was, so when we heard the news, it was obviously shocking and hard, but if we didn’t go through what we went through last year, and we heard the news, it will be ten times harder. So last year definitely helped.

“I feel like we got it. We got it. I’m confident in us, for sure.”

Maggie Vanoni, Christine Butterfield and Mike Anthony contributed

paul.doyle@hearstmediact.com