Geno on Paige Bueckers: "I've never seen her better"

Also: Ayanna Patterson is on the mend from a knee procedure but overall, the team is healthier than ever.

Photo: Ian Bethune

Paige Bueckers has never been better — at least according to her head coach.

After missing all of last season with a torn ACL in her left knee, Bueckers is making steady progress in her rehab with clearance to do everything but play 5-on-5 and said last week that she finally feels like a basketball player again. Geno Auriemma believes she’s come a long way as well — and not just physically.

“This is the best she's ever been, the strongest she's ever been, the fittest she's ever been. This is the most time she has spent working on her body, her mind, just taking care of herself. Usually, a lot of this stuff for these kids doesn't happen until they get to the pros because they're not mature enough to understand what this means,” he said on Tuesday. “She's embraced it. I've never seen her better — either playing 1-on-1, 3-on-3, what she's doing in the weight room, the way she walks around, the way everybody looks up to her and the way everybody hangs on every word she says. There's just a maturity about her.”

If there is a silver lining to Bueckers’ injuries over the past two seasons, it’s that she now understands the importance of taking care of her body. She admitted that in high school, she believed she was invincible and that she could go 110 percent in everything without consequence. After all she’s been through, Bueckers has learned a different approach.

“I used to just be a [racecar] that never filled up for gas and (UConn’s Director of Sports Performance Andrea) Hudy was telling me how every racecar needs to stop and fill up for gas every once in a while. You gotta take some steps back to take some steps forward. Usually I'm just a person that wants to be the hardest worker in the room, hardest worker in the gym, first one in and the last one to leave. But I'm trying to be more cordial of resting and taking some time off and not going 110 percent in everything that I do, but just being smart with how much I'm exerting and how much I'm doing and listening to my body. If there's something that's bothering me, not fighting through it but talking to people and getting treatment and stuff like that.”

Even with the arrow pointing upwards for Bueckers, she’s still not all the way back. When she spoke to the media last week, she was unsure whether or not she’d play during the team’s European tour in August even though she’ll almost certainly be cleared to.

Auriemma said Bueckers won’t play on the trip unless she wants to. At the same time, he knows she’ll need a little push, too.

“Until you put your foot in the water, it's always gonna be a little bit apprehensive, right? Question is: When? Well, I think it's going to be when she feels mentally ready,” he said.

However, the coach had no doubts that she’ll be back when UConn begins the regular season in mid-November.

“If she's not ready to go, then I'm not ready to go,” Auriemma quipped.

Patterson undergoes knee procedure

Ayanna Patterson underwent a procedure on her knee this offseason, according to Auriemma. He didn’t provide any specifics on either the injury or the operation other than comparing it to a surgery that Morgan Tuck had “years ago”. Considering Tuck’s long history of knee surgeries, it’s impossible to know which one Auriemma had in mind.

As for a timeline for Patterson’s recovery, she’ll likely be recovered sometime between the European tour in August and the start of the regular season in November.

“I don't think she'll be playing and be 100 percent before our trip,” Auriemma said. “Beyond that, we expect her to be ready for the season, for sure. We just don't know exactly when that will be.”

Patterson is one of two Huskies who have undergone offseason surgery. Amari DeBerry had back surgery in May to fix a herniated disc — an issue that had been “ongoing for over a year now,” according to Auriemma.

Even with those two still recovering, UConn might finally be trending in the right direction health-wise.

“This is probably the best that we've been in quite some time,” Auriemma said.

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