August 13, 2023 

Paige Bueckers’ return a big piece of UConn’s optimism heading into overseas travel

Paige Bueckers cleared for full-contact play after year of recovery from ACL injury

A cool summer breeze made its way through the UConn campus in Storrs, Connecticut on Friday, signaling the approaching start of another season for the most decorated program in women’s college basketball. Inside the Werth Champions Center, the excitement was palpable as reporters spoke with the Huskies and their head coach Geno Auriemma about the team’s upcoming European tour, with stops in Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.

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For UConn senior Aaliyah Edwards, the tour caps off a summer that included winning a FIBA Americup bronze medal with the Canadian national team in Léon, Mexico. Edwards, who traveled to Tokyo in 2021 to participate in the Olympics, reflected on the travel opportunities that she’s experienced while playing with the Canadians.

“I think basketball is a beautiful sport because it takes you around the world and you get to see so many different cultures and meet so many great people. And I think that I was blessed to do that this summer and then to continue on with Europe. It’s just a true blessing,” Edwards said.

The upcoming travel will be especially meaningful for UConn senior guard Nika Mühl. The Huskies will be traveling to Mühl’s hometown of Zagreb, Croatia, where they’ll face off in an exhibition game against a team of Croatian All-Stars on Aug. 16. It will be a chance for Mühl’s parents to see her play live for UConn for the first time.

“[My parents] are basketball fanatics, both of them … My mom watches every game, stays up till 5 a.m. My dad is too stressed to watch the game live, so he rewatches the next day. But they’ve been following, they’ve been in it — asking questions, communicating with the people here. Just, you know, that in-person thing is so much more valuable and I’m so excited for that,” Mühl said.

In addition to the exhibition game against the Croatian All-Stars, the Huskies will also face off against Askon Ilirija in Ljubljana, Slovenia on Friday; the Italian All-Stars in Baricella, Italy, on Aug. 21; and Pécs (Hungary) in Murano, Italy, on Aug. 23. While the team will not practice in Europe, Auriemma knows his team will learn a lot about its identity during the trip.

“Basketball over there is just part of the trip, what the trip is for. But like I tell the team, every time we’ve gone over there, we found out something about somebody on our team that helps us going forward,” Auriemma said.

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Bueckers ‘ready for take off’

Beyond the excitement of the upcoming team trip, there was yet further reason for optimism in Storrs on Friday, as 2021 Naismith Trophy winner and AP Player of the Year Paige Bueckers participated in her first full-contact practice since tearing her ACL on Aug. 1, 2022.

“It’s obviously filled with positive emotions,” Mühl said of Bueckers’ return to the court. “We’re super excited. We’re super happy,  just knowing that she can go up and down the court without subbing out, now she’s finally cleared, finally free. So just seeing her and how she reacts to that whole situation, it’s been very rewarding. [After] all we’ve been through, finally something good.”

Auriemma expressed that Bueckers has not only returned from injury but has also worked hard to come back stronger and more prepared for the physicality of college play.

“Paige is bigger, stronger,” Auriemma said. “Paige doesn’t look like the skinny little freshman that came in here three years ago. She looks like a college player now. She’s worked incredibly hard and all that work is for one purpose, and that’s to play the game that she loves to play.”

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Bueckers is expected to play when the Huskies head to Europe. Integrating her back into the lineup will require some exploration and adjustment, as UConn is a team with several guards looking to find minutes and contribute to the team’s success.

“Everybody on the team is having to learn how to get used to playing with her because a lot of these guys have not been around her. I mean, this is [junior guard Azzi Fudd]’s third year and they’ve played 15 games together, so there isn’t a lot of experience playing together. But she makes everybody a better passer, she makes everybody smarter, because you get smarter just watching her and just being on the floor with her.”

One addition that the Huskies will need to integrate into the lineup this season is freshman guard KK Arnold. Arnold, a top-10 recruit in the 2023 class, is embracing the opportunity to learn from Bueckers.

UConn freshman KK Arnold speaks to reporters at the Werth Champions Center in Storrs, Conn., on Aug. 11, 2023. (Photo credit: Tee Baker | The Next)

“Seeing her live again, it just excites the whole team,” Arnold said. “And just having her, just to watch her, you know, shadow her around and watch her around the plays just has been very good for me, just seeing it slows down the plays. And I get to ask her questions as well after she gets off the court and after I maybe subbed in for her or subbed in for somebody else and go through the play.”

Despite a trying past two seasons that has included a seemingly unending gauntlet of season-altering injuries — including most recently the season-ending Achilles tendon rupture of redshirt freshman Jana El Alfy — there is an air of hope and optimism in Storrs. With Bueckers re-entering the lineup and the team headed on a flight to Europe for some preseason tune-ups, the Huskies are beaming with the renewed optimism that a new season brings.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

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