STORRS, Conn. (AP) — UConn star Paige Bueckers is by all accounts physically fit again as her Huskies enter the women’s NCAA Tournament looking for a 14th consecutive appearance in the Final Four and a 12th national title.
Last season’s national player of the year has come off the bench in five games since returning from the left knee tibia plateau fracture and torn meniscus she suffered in early December. The sophomore has averaged under 14 minutes a game since her return and scored 30 total points, 16 of them in the Huskies’ Big East quarterfinal win over Georgetown.
But coach Geno Auriemma said there will be no minutes restriction on Bueckers in the tournament and he hasn’t ruled out starting her when the No. 2 seed Huskies (25-5) take on Mercer (23-6) on Saturday.
All the strength and conditioning metrics indicate Bueckers is physically back to where she was before the injury, Auriemma said. But the mental aspect, he said, is a “horse of a different color.”
“When you come off an injury as severe as the one that Paige had, that’s the last thing to come back,” he said. “But each and every day I see more and more and more of her being her old self physically and mentally and emotionally.”
Bueckers, who averaged 21.2 points, 6.2 assists and 5.5 rebounds in the six games she played before the injury, acknowledges it has been a struggle getting back to that level of play and having confidence in her body.
“Sometimes I’m just not as comfortable, or when I was first coming back, comfortable making the same moves or making the same reads and making the same cuts or movements that I did before my knee surgery,” she said. “My strength is there; my healing is there. So, just being able to be confident enough to use it again is the biggest thing for me.”
Mercer comes into the tournament as a 15 seed but is making its seventh NCAA appearance and fourth in a row.
The Bears lost last March as a 16 seed to top-seeded South Carolina, 79-53, but fell by just five points to Iowa in 2019, the last time they were a No. 15 seed.
“This isn’t a team that just came out of nowhere and snuck into the NCAA Tournament,” Auriemma said. “There one of the best teams in the country year in and year out.”
The Bears have allowed just one opponent to score over 70 points this season and that came in a 71-70 overtime loss to Tennessee State in early December.
Senior guard Amoria Neal-Tysor said the program is respectful of UConn’s history, but that doesn’t mean Mercer will be intimidated by the name on the jersey.
“We’re a championship program,” Neal-Tysor said. “Coach (Susie) Gardner and her staff, we know how to win.”
Florida’s and UCF’s campuses are only about 126 miles apart, but each team traveled more than 1,000 miles to face off Saturday for the first time in six seasons.
“I guess they wanted a challenge to see who was the best team in Florida, so we’re going to give them a show,” Florida guard Zippy Broughton said.
The 10th-seeded Gators (21-10) are marking their first tournament appearance since 2016. They are 25-0 all-time against the No. 7-seeded Knights (25-3), but come into this game as underdogs after losing star player Kiara “Kiki” Smith (14.9 points per game) to a right knee injury during the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“We will miss Kiki on the floor, there is no doubt about that,” coach Kelly Rae Finley said. “But we prepare like we prepare every single day. We have a tremendous group of student-athletes who strive to be their best in whatever role is required of them every single day.”
UCF is making a third straight tournament appearance, improving its seeding from a No. 12 in 1999 and a No. 10 last year. The Knights are looking for their first tournament win.
UCF has the best scoring defense in the country, allowing 47.5 points and forcing 20 turnovers per game.
The teams are among six from Florida to make the tournament. Florida Gulf Coast, a No. 12 seed, upset Virginia Tech Friday and Miami beat South Florida in the opening round. Florida State lost to Missouri State in the First Four.
“Florida teams, we feel like we don’t get enough respect as a state of Florida, so seeing Florida teams compete against each other, it gets more spotlight on us,” UCF senior Diamond Battles said.
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