When in Connecticut Paige Bookers and Stanford’s Hayley Jones battled for a fourth-quarter rebound on Friday night, the Bookers ending up limping off the court. Bookers returned a few minutes later, only to knocked down again when Stanford’s Lexi Hull lunged for the rebound.
Clashes were not out of the ordinary for these two highly physical teams, especially since a strike was at stake in the national championship match.
But it’s only been two and a half months since the Buckers was a surgeony to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and a lateral meniscus tear in the left knee. The 20-year-old defender returned to the court at the end of February and has gradually increased her playing time from 13 minutes a month ago to 45 minutes. on Monday night. On Friday, she played 34 minutes against Stanford and led her team with 14 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists.
Bookers brushed off any questions about injuries or nerves after the game. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said.
On Sunday, she will play South Carolina and the nation’s top defensive team, including 6ft 5in 2022 Women’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Alia Boston.
The Bookers are on a long list of Huskies who have missed time this season due to injury or illness. But they are back from their worst regular season since 2004-2005. 1st in the tournament – NC State and Stanford – and now looking to do it again to win their first national championship since 2016.
Recovery became common among the Bukers and her teammates. After her first fall of Friday’s game, Buekers flinched, grabbed her right leg and limped off the court. After her second, during a dropped ball challenge in which she landed on her bad knee, Bukers briefly covered her face with her hands before her teammates came over to help her up. Bookers left and resumed play.
“Some things, like what happened last night, are more like momentary pain and you can just shake it off,” Bukers said on Saturday. “I was just warming up and trying to get back in the game as soon as possible.”
“Once I get off the floor, I can’t wait to get back,” she added.
Before Sunday’s game, Buekers said she plans to take an ice bath, stretch, and use “every recovery device we can use to make sure our bodies and minds are ready.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he would play with the Buckers for as long as she could and that he was not “interested in managing her time” on the court on Sunday, but rather “managing her game.”
“As long as she does what we need, I’ll leave her there. If she struggles even a little with something, physically or with her game, then I will pull her out, ”added Auriemma. “Tomorrow her hands will be busy. We probably play the best defense in America.”
South Carolina’s Brea Beal, who covered the Louisville offense on Friday and kept his top scorer from hitting double figures, expects Bukers to be at the top of his game, injury or not.
“When it comes to someone like Paige, no matter what she’s going to do there, and I think the adrenaline will protect her from it,” Beal said Saturday. “I definitely think we’re definitely going to get the best game she’s played all season.”