Running it back in a big way: What Paige Bueckers, Aubrey Griffin returning means for UConn women’s basketball

STORRS — Paige Bueckers subbed out of the UConn women’s basketball team’s Senior Night game against Georgetown on Friday with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and one made 3-pointer on six attempts.

Bueckers checked back in two and a half minutes later and immediately drained back-to-back shots from beyond the arc, skyrocketing her 3-point percentage from 16.7% to 37.5% in just 29 seconds. The No. 15 Huskies (22-5, 14-0 Big East) went on to rout Georgetown (16-10, 6-9) 85-44 with 21 points and a season-high eight assists from Bueckers, plus three assists and three steals.

But it’s those 29 seconds that perfectly encapsulate the way anything feels possible with Bueckers on the court. It’s moments like those — dozens of them over her 69 games as a Husky — that fueled the deafening reaction from the crowd at Gampel Pavilion when a grinning Bueckers announced that she will return for a fifth year in Storrs in 2024-25.

“The overall reaction from the crowd is everything you dream of,” Bueckers said. “It’s a great feeling to be wanted. It’s a great feeling to have people that want to have you back, so it means a lot to be able to tell them that and have the same excitement as they do about me coming back. Having the student section, everybody there supporting me and very excited about the announcement, it was a very, very cool thing to be a part of.”

Coach Geno Auriemma didn’t know Bueckers had made her decision when she took the mic postgame. His reaction was unsurprisingly subdued, but the wry smile and unmistakable pride in his eyes made it clear exactly how important the star guard’s confirmation was.

“Paige is very, very bad at making decisions. Very bad,” Auriemma said. “When we were recruiting her I had to threaten her because she couldn’t decide. But obviously it changes the whole nature of things. There’s a lot of excitement about the possibilities … The coaches were sitting over there like alright, well this settles a bunch of stuff from now on.”

Another year of Bueckers is a sign of hope for a UConn team that has faced some of the worst injury luck in the nation during her college career. Bueckers herself has been a victim, sitting out 19 games as a sophomore with a tibial plateau fracture, then missing all of 2022-23 after tearing her ACL in August before the season.

Bueckers was the 2021 Naismith Player of the Year in 2021, becoming the first freshman ever to win the award. She led UConn to back-to-back Final Four appearances in her first two seasons, including to the national championship game when she was just weeks removed from surgery. She currently averages a team-high 20 points, 4.6 rebounds and four assists in her first season back from the ACL tear, also leading the team in blocks and steals.

“Paige has never played with a full team since she’s been in Connecticut,” Auriemma said after a win at Villanova on Jan. 31. “Paige didn’t play all of last year, and the year before she was in the national championship game. All of a sudden now she’s not that good, compared to who? Some guys who have never won an NCAA Tournament game yet, or who have never played in a national championship game? I’d like to see Paige play with a full complement of players, and then you can judge for yourself how good she is.”

It’s not that Bueckers doesn’t have talent around her, but the Huskies haven’t fielded a consistent starting five since her freshman year. After winning the Nancy Lieberman Award for the nation’s best point guard in 2021, five season-ending injuries on the 2023-24 roster have forced Bueckers to play most of her minutes as a power forward. At 6-foot, she is often UConn’s second-tallest player on the floor.

“I like playing basketball, so whatever position you put me at I’m going to embrace it, but I give a lot of credit to the post players,” Bueckers joked Thursday. “I’ve always said the guard position is harder than the post, but to manage doing both is extremely hard, so I give them a lot of credit for battling down there in the post on defense. It’s tough.”

The Huskies are expected to get back three forwards next season, headlined by fifth-year Aubrey Griffin who also confirmed her plans to return. She was UConn’s second-best rebounder averaging 9.5 points and six boards before she tore her ACL on Jan. 3. Just having Griffin would lighten the massive burden on Bueckers’s shoulders, but UConn should also return two promising young centers in Jana El Alfy and Ayanna Patterson, who have both missed the entire season with injuries. Auriemma also said Friday that he does not expect senior point guard Nika Muhl to return for a fifth year of eligibility, which would leave the position open for Bueckers to reclaim.

As much as it means for Bueckers personally, her decision was anything but selfish. The senior was all but guaranteed a top-3 selection in the 2024 WNBA Draft, but her time at UConn feels unfinished without giving the team another chance to realize its full potential. Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2021, committed to the Huskies in part because of her longtime friendship with Bueckers and their desire to play together in college. However, the pair have played just 17 games together in three seasons because of injuries. Fudd, stuck on the bench after tearing her ACL in November, wore a No. 5 jersey in Bueckers’ honor on senior night.

“My only normal year of college basketball was my freshman year, which was the COVID year, so it wasn’t normal at all,” Bueckers said. “And there’s just the love for this program. I love playing here. I love my teammates. I love my coaches. Obviously you think about what this team could do when we’re fully healthy, and I feel like our class has kind of learned never to take that for granted.”

Auriemma wasn’t shocked by Bueckers’ decision even though the announcement caught him by surprise. He can tell his star senior still wants to be in college. She wants to play basketball with her friends. If that means accomplishing more of the goals she dreamed of when she committed to UConn in 2019, it will be an added bonus.

“The great unknown is no pandemic and no injuries, what could it have been the last four years with a bunch of healthy bodies?” Auriemma said. “The stars were all lined up wrong and that contributed to all of the injures, then all of a sudden they lined up right and it allows us to take advantage of these unique opportunities.”

“I just want it to work out for them. I really do. I desperately want it to work out for them.”