Former UConn stars Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi and others react to Paige Bueckers’ ACL tear and where the Huskies go from here

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When Breanna Stewart heard UConn women’s basketball star Paige Bueckers had torn the ACL in her left knee this week, she couldn’t help but think back to her own experience going through injuries, most notably an Achilles tendon tear in 2019.

Bueckers, who led the Huskies to the national title game last season after missing 19 games with an injury in the same knee, suffered the tear during a pickup game earlier this week. She will have surgery Friday and sit out the 2022-23 season.

“Really just devastated for Paige,” Stewart said. “I’m sure she’s asking herself why, and you don’t know why. It’s just gonna be her journey. It’s gonna be her story. It’s gonna be the way that she fights back through adversity.”

Stewart and several former UConn stars spoke with The Hartford Courant on Thursday to share their reactions to Bueckers’ injury, give insight into their own recoveries from major injuries, and offer perspective on where the Huskies go from here.

Diana Taurasi was well aware of how much work Bueckers was putting into her body with Huskies’ strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy this summer, even electing to stay in Storrs over the last several weeks while the rest of her teammates went home. That makes the news of the injury that much more upsetting for the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

“I feel bad for the kid,” Taurasi said. “I heard she was looking amazing. And it’s unfortunate for her, I know how much she wants to be on the court. An ACL is a long journey, but she’s a tough kid and I’m sure she’s gonna come back better than ever.”

After hearing the news Stewart reached out to Bueckers to offer advice.

“I told her there’s going to be good days and bad days,” Stewart said. “There’s going to be ups and downs, this rollercoaster of a journey, but what’s most important is that you show up. You show up every day, you do rehab, and she’ll be back before she knows it.”

Kia Nurse and Bria Hartley know what that journey is like from firsthand experience. Nurse tore her right ACL during Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals last season and is currently in the final stages of the rehab process. Hartley is just beginning hers after tearing the ACL in her left knee less than two weeks ago, a frustrating blow after suffering the same injury in her other knee during the 2020 season.

“I was ust devastated for her just because I know it’s a tough injury, and with last year her battling injuries as well,” Hartley said. “But Paige is really resilient, she’s just a really hard worker. So I mean, I think a lot of hard workers overcome this. And then it’s just gonna be a battle. And I think it makes you stronger as a person in the long run.”

Much of that battle is mental. With how up and down things can be from one day to another during the rehab process, Hartley said she had to learn to give herself grace.

The tediousness of it all is what’s gotten to Nurse the most.

“I mean, it’s boring,” Nurse said. “Every day is pretty much the same thing and it’s redundant. And so, as competitors we always want to do more and get it done quicker, but you can’t speed up time. And so that’s probably the toughest thing is just having patience "

The first seven months of Nurse’s rehab “were a breeze,” but the last two months have been really hard from a mental standpoint. She’s beyond eager to be back on the court, but has had to learn to listen to her body and do what’s best for her career long term.

“We’re getting there,” Nurse said. “Once you tear your ACL, there’s no date that you can circle on the calendar to come back on. So we’ve looked at after All-Star break as being the time to come back, and today is after All Star break, tomorrow is, and 10 days from now is too. So whenever it comes, it comes. Just waiting it out.”

As she does so, UConn’s coaching staff will be strategizing how best to pivot for the season. Bueckers has led the Huskies in points, assists and steals per game in each of the last two years, the first of which saw her receive multiple national player of the year honors.

“Obviously Paige carries a very heavy load for that team in what she’s able to do on both ends of the floor,” Nurse said. “So going back now, at least it’s preseason and you have time to see how kids have developed over the summer and what’s new in their game. And then just having others step up and seeing what the freshmen can do as well stepping in to kind of fill that role.”

Nurse and Taurasi both echoed sentiments that no one player can be expected to replace Bueckers or direct the offense the same way, rather it will be a collective effort.

“You’re not going to be Paige, you’re not gonna find another player who is Paige,” Nurse said. “Each and every player has to step up just a little bit more than what they’ve done to kind of fill in those gaps.”

Taurasi is confident if there’s any coach and program suited to make those adjustments, it’s Geno Auriemma and the Huskies.

“He’s always been a mastermind of making the most out of what he has,” Taurasi said. “Obviously, Paige is a big blow, she’s a big part of what they do as a team. But he’ll find a way to get the best out of the team and the incoming freshmen, and I have no doubt they’re gonna have another great season. It just might look different, but you can count on them going a long way in the tournament.”