NEWARK — When ESPN announced last month that ABC would televise aregular season women’s college basketball game for the first time, a matchup featuring U.C.L.A. and No. 3 Connecticut, the network assumed that Paige Bueckers, the UConn sophomore guard and reigning national player of the year, would be starring on the court.
But an hour before tip-off on Saturday, Bueckers was on the Prudential Center floor wearing a blue, gray and white UConn sweatsuit and a black brace that extended from her left thigh to her foot. Propped on crutches, she talked with teammates, coaches and reporters.
Bueckers had sustained a tibial plateau fracture in her left knee with less than a minute remaining in a Dec. 5 home game against Notre Dame. She is expected to miss six to eight weeks, a timeline that would allow her to return in time to play in the Big East and N.C.A.A. tournaments in March.
“She needed to solicit a couple other opinions and then the next step is there’s either going to be surgery or there’s not going to be surgery and that’s got to happen relatively soon,” Coach Geno Auriemma said after a 71-61 win over U.C.L.A.
“I think by the next couple days here we’re going to have a definitive answer, yes or no,” he added.
Even if Bueckers, 20, whom UConn did not make available for this story, undergoes surgery, Auriemma said he didn’t expect it to impact her recovery much. He said he was eyeing “mid-February or late-February at the latest” for her return.
Bueckers’ injury has raised several questions: Should she have still been in the game — a blowout — at the end? What does her absence mean for UConn’s chances of winning a 12th national championship under Auriemma? Will it impact her ability to earn money through her mame, image and likeness deals? It has also raised one certainty: it will be a long six to eight weeks for the Huskies (6-2).
Bueckers had amassed 22 points, 5 steals, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 39 minutes that positioned UConn for a 73-54 blowout of a ranked Notre Dame (9-2) team before sustaining the non-contact injury. Bueckers was dribbling up the court when she stumbled, twisted her ankle and fell awkwardly on her left leg.
Afterward, many on social media questioned whether Bueckers should have even been in the game at that stage.
“It’s certainly something to talk about,”Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn and W.N.B.A. star who was part of the ABC broadcast team for the U.C.L.A. game, told The New York Times, before referencing the anterior cruciate ligament injury she had while playing with the Liberty. “But when I tore my knee the first time, it was in the first minute of a game. Non-contact. I thought there was contact but there wasn’t. With injuries, I’m sure people are going to second guess but that can only get you so far.”
What remains to be seen is how far the Huskies will get without Bueckers, who was averaging 21.2 points, 6.2 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 56 percent from the field at the time of the injury. She had accounted for at least 45 percent of UConn’s total points.
Against Seton Hall on Dec. 3, she had 23 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals. On one play, she threw a three-quarter-court pass to her roommate Christyn Williams for a layup.
After Bueckers’ injury, Williams said she had made chocolate chip cookies to help her feel better. “I’m hurt,” Williams said on a call with reporters. “Paige is one of our leaders on the floor — she’s my point guard, she’s my sister. We’re family.”
Without Bueckers, UConn lost, 57-44, at unranked Georgia Tech (8-2) last Thursday, snapping a 239-game winning streak against unranked opponents.
“That loss the other night probably told a lot of our players that you’re not good enough right now the way you’re playing basketball,” Auriemma said. “And it told our team that you’re not really playing as a team.”
UConn is also dealing with injuries to the freshman Azzi Fudd, the nation’s top-ranked 2021 recruit, who is expected to miss at least two weeks because of a foot injury, and the sophomore guard Nika Muhl, who could miss several weeks with a foot injury. Neither played against Georgia Tech.
UConn is actually down four guards because the freshman Saylor Poffenbarger announced last month that she was entering the transfer portal.
“They still got a lot of really, really good players, so I don’t feel really sorry for them, to be honest with you,” U.C.L.A. Coach Cori Close said.
Against U.C.L.A. (5-3), five UConn players scored in double-figures as the Huskies got back on the winning track. Evina Westbrook, a redshirt senior guard, stepped into the point guard role in Bueckers’ absence and had 17 points and 7 assists to only a single turnover.
Auriemma said the team as currently constituted doesn’t have the ability to “push the ball and spread the floor” as much as it did with Bueckers, but he hoped that other players would step up in her absence.
“Now when Paige and the rest of our players do come back, there’s more people in the party instead of outside hoping to get in, and feel like they belong here and can contribute not just when they have to but they’ll be able to contribute as part of the natural flow of our offense,” he said.
Bueckers sat behind the UConn bench, shouting her support to teammates. After the game, she pulled on a black winter coat and limped on her crutches to meet them in the locker room.
The Huskies next play No. 7 Louisville on Sunday, and they will also play No. 1 South Carolina — which beat them in a neutral-site game in November — and No. 9 Tennessee in the new year.
“My thought after the Georgia Tech game was all right, UConn might take their lumps in a way we haven’t seen in a really long time over the course of the next six to eight weeks,” Lobo said.
“They might take their losses in a different way. It might be losses to an unranked team, it might be less-than-pretty wins. We’re so used to watching them be so pretty offensively, but ultimately assuming she can come back at some point, I would still imagine they will be in the hunt for another Final Four.”
Last month Bueckers became the first college athlete to sign with Gatorade, and The Wall Street Journal reported that she could make an estimated $1 million a year in endorsements between Gatorade and another deal with the global sneaker and streetwear reseller StockX.
“It’s not a career-ending injury, hopefully for her it’s not even a season-ending injury, so I don’t really think it will impact that stuff as much,” Lobo said. “It’s not like Gatorade and StockX are running commercials during our ABC game. They’re having her do stuff on their social media platforms.”
Bueckers will be eligible for the W.N.B.A. draft in 2023. While N.B.A. rules allow players to jump to the pros after one year of college — or the year in which they turn 19 — prospective W.N.B.A. players generally aren’t allowed to go until they complete four years of college, although there have been exceptions.
“My argument would be that a player like Paige could potentially make more money the longer she stays at UConn,” Lobo said. “It’s just the truth that even the most recognizable college players, when you go to the W.N.B.A., unfortunately your visibility decreases. Hopefully, that changes soon but with N.I.L. it might make more financial sense to stay in school.”
Bueckers is expected to be at UConn for two more seasons — but her coach and teammates can’t wait to get her back in the next two months.