BRIDGEPORT, CONN. – Paige Bueckers tumbled to the floor and grabbed her left knee. A gasp could be heard inside a boisterous Total Mortgage Arena packed with UConn fans.
Bueckers got up quickly, jogged off the court with a slight limp and went directly to the end of the bench to be evaluated by an athletic trainer.
Luckily, it was only a scare, nothing serious, and UConn's superstar was able to return minutes later in the first quarter of the second-seeded Huskies' 75-58 victory over third-seeded Indiana in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
"I knew I was going to take some hits," she said later. "I'm fine."
Fine and gradually improving but still not back to her normal self after undergoing major knee surgery in December. Despite noticeable limitations in her game, Bueckers showed Saturday that she's still pretty darn good as she moved to the brink of a special homecoming.
UConn (28-5) plays No. 1 seed North Carolina State in the regional final here Monday for a trip to Minneapolis for the Final Four next weekend.
For Bueckers, the former Hopkins star, a chance to play on her sport's biggest stage in her hometown would be a delightful finish to a challenging season.
A perfectly scripted ending was thrust into jeopardy when she suffered a knee injury on Dec. 5. She missed 19 games after having surgery to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and a lateral meniscus tear.
Saturday marked her eighth game back and it's been a slow process trying to regain the form that made her the first freshman in women's history to be named National Player of the Year.
Her explosiveness and fluidity have not returned fully yet. She's not able to slice through defenses with acrobatic grace as easily as she's accustomed to doing. But even if she feels, say, 85% of her normal self, 85% of Paige Bueckers is still effective and difficult for opponents to contain.
The Hoosiers (24-9) got a dose of that dominant version of Bueckers in a third-quarter blast that swung the game in UConn's favor.
Bueckers opened the second half with a corner three-pointer. She followed that with a layup on a give-and-go, finishing the bucket with her left hand and then holding her arm up in a brief pose.
Indiana called a timeout and Bueckers let loose her trademark scream as the crowd erupted. She scored seven points during a 16-0 run, nine points in the quarter and finished the game with a team-high 15 points.
Bueckers said she has had to guard against second-guessing herself on the court since returning. None of that doubt crept into her mind during that flurry.
"I just played basketball," she said.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma used the word "conundrum" to describe the process of incorporating a player of Bueckers' stature back into the lineup. Auriemma initially brought her off the bench before moving her back into the starting lineup for the tournament.
"We really want Paige to do well because she's coming off of a big, big surgery," Auriemma said. "We know how good she is, so we want her to be the Paige that she was. What you don't want is to sit around and root for Paige while the game is going on instead of playing basketball."
Her lengthy absence forced the team to find a new identity, new roles. Four of the Huskies' five losses came with Bueckers sidelined.
Auriemma has tried to manage expectations since she has returned, knowing Bueckers won't be completely back to form until next season, while also encouraging her to be more assertive on offense, which she put on display in that third quarter.
"But you can tell she hasn't played in a long time," Auriemma said. "She doesn't have that same stuff she used to have. Each day it gets more and more like it used to be. But it doesn't have to be as good as it was because everybody else around her is a lot better than they were."
She hopes this version — of herself and her team — is still good enough to earn a trip home.