Follow our live updates of the women’s NCAA championship game: UConn vs. South Carolina.When Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers and Stanford’s Haley Jones fought for a rebound in the fourth quarter on Friday night, Bueckers ended up limping off the court. Bueckers returned a few minutes later, only to be knocked down again when Stanford’s Lexie Hull lunged for a rebound.The collisions were not out of character for these two highly physical teams, especially given that a shot at a national championship game was on the line.But it has been just two and a half months since Bueckers had surgery to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and a lateral meniscus tear on her left knee. The 20-year-old guard returned to the court in late February and has slowly 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.Bueckers shrugged off any questions about injury or nerves after the game. “Yeah, I’m OK,” she said.On Sunday, she’ll face South Carolina and the top defensive team in the country, including 6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston, the 2022 women’s national player of the year award and defensive player of the year.Bueckers is on a long list of Huskies who have missed time this season because of injury or illness. But they’ve come back from their worst regular season since 2004-5 to take down two No. 1 seeds in the tournament — North Carolina State and Stanford — and are now hoping to do it again to win their first national championship since 2016.Getting back up has become a common thread among Bueckers and her teammates. After her first fall of the game on Friday, Bueckers winced, grabbed her right leg and limped off the court. After her second, during a tussle for a jump ball in which she landed on her bad knee, Bueckers covered her face with her hands briefly before her teammates came over to help her up. Bueckers walked it off and resumed play.“Some things, like what happened last night, are more of an in-the-moment type of pain and you can just shake it off,” Bueckers said Saturday. “I was just stretching and making sure I could get back in the game as soon as possible.”“As soon as I come off the floor, I can’t wait to get back in,” she added.Before Sunday’s game, Bueckers said she plans to sit in an ice bath, stretch and use “all the recovery devices that we can to make sure that our bodies and minds will be prepared.”UConn’s coach, Geno Auriemma, said he’ll play Bueckers for as long as she’s able, and that he wasn’t “interested in managing her time” on the court on Sunday but rather “managing her performance.”“As long as she’s getting the things done that we need done, I’m going to leave her out there. If she’s struggling a little bit with whatever, physically or her game, then I’m going to take her out,” Auriemma added. “She’s going to have her hands full tomorrow. We’re playing probably the best defense in America.”South Carolina’s Brea Beal, who blanketed Louisville’s offense on Friday and blocked its top scorer from breaking double digits, is expecting Bueckers to be at the top of her game, injury or not.“When it comes to someone like Paige, no matter what she’s going to go out there and I think the adrenaline is going to shield her from that,” Beal said on Saturday. “I definitely think we’re going to get the best game she’s played all season for sure.”
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