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Bueckers says she will play through the pain against South Carolina

Follow us live updates of Women’s NCAA Championship Games: UConn vs. South Carolina.

As Paige Bueckers of Connecticut and Haley Jones of Stanford fought for a rebound in the fourth quarter on Friday night, Bueckers limped to the end of the court. Bueckers came back a few minutes later, only to be dropped again when Stanford’s Lexie Hull jumped for a rebound.

The collisions were not out of character for these two highly physical teams, especially since a shot in a national championship game was on the line.

But it has only been two and a half months since Bueckers underwent surgery to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and a lateral meniscus tear on her left knee. The 20-year-old guard returned to court in late February and gradually increased his playing time, from 13 minutes a month ago to 45 minutes on Monday evening. On Friday, she played 34 minutes against Stanford and with 14 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists led her team.

Bueckers dismissed any questions about injury or nerves after the game. “Yeah, I’m OK,” she said.

On Sunday, she will face South Carolina and the top defending team in the country, including 6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston, the 2022 Women’s National Player of the Year Award and Defensive Player of the Year.

Bueckers is on a long list of Huskies who missed time this season due to injury or illness. But they are back from their worst regular season since 2004-5 for taking two No. 1 seeds in the tournament – North Carolina State and Stanford – and now hope to do it again to win their first national championship since 2016.

Opening up has become a common thread among bookers and their teammates. After her first case of the game on Friday, Bueckers won, grabbed her right leg and limped off the court. After her second, during a fight for a bouncy ball in which she landed on her bad knee, Bueckers briefly covered her face with her hands before her teammates came over to get her up. Bueckers left and played again.

“Some things, like what happened last night, are more of a current type of pain and you can just relieve it,” Bueckers said Saturday. “I just stretched myself and made sure I got back into the game as soon as possible.”

“As soon as I get off the ground, I can not wait to get back,” she added.

Before Sunday’s game, Bueckers said she plans to sit in an ice bath, stretch and use “all the recovery equipment we can to make sure our bodies and minds are prepared.”

UConn’s coach, Geno Auriemma, said he will play Bueckers for as long as she can, and that he is not “interested in managing her time” in court on Sunday, but rather “managing her performance.”

“As long as she gets the things we need to do, I’ll leave her out. If she’s struggling a bit with anything, physical or her game, I’ll take her out,” Auriemma added. “She will have her hands full tomorrow. We will probably play the best defense in America.

South Carolina’s Brea Beal, who covered Louisville’s offense on Friday and blocked his top scorer from breaking double figures, expects Bueckers to be at the top of their game, injury or not.

“When it comes to someone like Paige, no matter what she does out there and I think the adrenaline is protecting her from it,” Beal said Saturday. “I definitely think we get the best game she’s played all season for sure.”

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