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Geno Auriemma: Paige Bueckers’ return changes ‘everything’ for UConn

(David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)

After missing much of the last two seasons for UConn basketball, a “bigger, stronger” Paige Bueckers is ready to return to the court. And her presence will change “everything” for the Huskies, coach Geno Auriemma said Friday.

The 2021 National Player of the Year missed 19 games of the 2021-22 season with a knee injury, then missed the entire 2022-23 season with an ACL injury. Just this Wednesday, 369 days after her ACL tear, she announced herself “all clear and ready for takeoff.”

Even without Bueckers, UConn finished with a 31-6 record. But the injury-riddled Huskies failed to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007 with their Sweet 16 exit from the NCAA tournament.

“Having Paige back is like a breath of fresh air like everything changes in the gym,” Auriemma said Friday during Bueckers’ first full-contact practice since her ACL injury. “You know, the minute she walks on the court, everything changes and you can see it in their faces.”

UConn will play four exhibition games in Europe next week. Bueckers’ comfort level over the next few days of practice will determine if, and how much, she will play during the international trip, Auriemma said. The head coach is trying to convince his star point guard not to push herself too hard, especially just after her return, CT Insider’s Maggie Vanoni reported Friday.

Still, he is impressed by Bueckers’ development. She spent last season rehabbing her injury and rebuilding her strength, and Auriemma can see that on the court.

“Paige is bigger, stronger. Paige doesn’t look like (the) skinny little freshmen that came in here three years ago,” Auriemma said. “She looks like a college player now.”

And if Bueckers could take the college basketball world by storm as a “skinny little freshman” in the 2020-21 season, what can she do as a redshirt junior in the 2023-24 season? The Huskies — and their opponents — will soon find out.