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Paige Bueckers felt like she had “disappeared.” Now she’s back in the game.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The sports world doesn’t focus very well. Related: Is Anyone These Days?

It’s not about social media or the death of monoculture. It is not only a well-trodden terrain, but also one trampled by a million footsteps. However, how did Paige Bueckers get from the pinnacle of women’s basketball to where she is today, close to the public consciousness but not really there anymore?

The short answer is maybe Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins. But the long answer is a little more complex.

“We have the best player in America,” Bueckers coach Geno Auriemma said last week in Connecticut. “And, you know, I just say that because the numbers, in this analytics world, the numbers say she is. And the entire stat sheet says she is.

A few days later, Dawn Staley, coach of undefeated South Carolinasaid: “I think Paige is probably the elite basketball player to ever grace our game. You look at her efficiency, she doesn’t take bad shots.

Now, after beating Duke, 53-45, on Saturday in the Sweet 16, U-Conn. and Bueckers are one win away from the Final Four. They will face Watkins and top-seeded USC at the Moda Center on Monday. Bueckers, the 6-foot guard for the third-seeded Huskies, played all 40 minutes against the Blue Devils, scoring a game-high 24 points. She made three consecutive points in a 10-point third quarter. She hit in the paint, playing big for a team that lost six contributors. But even with U-Conn. in the mix — with her influence so clearly evident — coaches and teammates are always rooting for Bueckers, as if she doesn’t get enough credit from whoever will satisfy them.

For what? Hard to say, of course, but Bueckers didn’t just suffer two serious injuries to his left knee in the span of about eight months. She suffered two serious knee injuries as women’s college basketball exploded in popularity. First came a tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus in December 2021. Then, in August 2022, she tore her ACL, ending her third college season before it doesn’t start. Three years ago, calling her the best player in the country might have been met with a shrug. After all, she was the first freshman to win the Naismith, Associated Press and Wooden Player of the Year awards. But while Bueckers was healing, Clark was becoming Caitlin Clark. Reese and Clark met at last year’s national finalSparks debates lasting several weeks on how to win and lose.

That night, when LSU beat Iowa for the title, while Bueckers was still recovering from a torn ACL, she watched from her apartment in Storrs, Connecticut. But she almost skipped the match altogether, feeling so frustrated that she couldn’t be a part of it. he.

“I love watching basketball, that’s why I put it on,” Bueckers said this week in Portland. “But I really thought about avoiding it. I wasn’t in the best place. I just wanted to be on the field again.

“Paige was coming to the training center every day last year to do his rehab and watch practice or whatever,” Auriemma said Saturday night. “And she was always the most upbeat, positive person in the gym. You knew that when she came home, she was a completely different person. You knew it was killing her and tearing her apart. But great players like that, they carry a light with them.

The setbacks don’t appear to hamper Bueckers’ earning potential. She has signed name, image and likeness (NIL) contracts with Nike, Bose, Gatorade and Dunkin’, among many other companies. She returns to U-Conn. next season, while Clark and Cameron Brink of Stanford — two more NIL stars — are headed to the WNBA draft in mid-April. Bueckers is averaging a career-high 21.8 points per game, up from 20 during that dominant first year. And even though her assists are down, she’s up her rebounds, blocks and production at the line.

Out of necessity, because of circumstances, it evolved.

“I bet you if you asked USC, they wouldn’t tell you Caitlin Clark was the best player. I bet if you asked LSU they wouldn’t tell you. I bet you if you asked Texas, they wouldn’t tell you,” Auriemma said Friday, before U-Conn. shot Duke down. “I think every coach thinks the player on their team who helps them the most is the best. Look, I coached the best player in the country more than anyone else in this tournament. It’s okay for someone else to say their player is.

“If you look at the stats, the efficiency, the overall score and what she means to our team as a power forward, I think she has done more for our team than anyone in the world. “No one else could… I would. I wouldn’t trade it for anyone else.

It’s not fair to Bueckers or Clark to view any praise for Bueckers as an insult to the Iowa point guard. Neither Auriemma nor Staley made the connection, although their arguments for effectiveness might seem like a dig at the bottom. how much Clark shoots. There are also more than two stars left in the tournament, not to mention women’s basketball in general. There’s Watkins, Freshman at USCand there’s Reese, one of LSU’s many powerhouses. There’s Madison Booker, a freshman at Texas. There’s Kamilla Cardoso, the 6-7 anchor from South Carolina, on a team that hasn’t lost.

But the intrigue of U-Conn.-Iowa, of Bueckers’ return to the Final Four, is hard to ignore. If the Hawkeyes beat LSU on Monday, then the Huskies play USC late in the game, that’s what would happen. Oddly, it would seem like a battle between the past and the present, even though Bueckers will remain at the university after Clark leaves. Bueckers’ story, far from being linear, is delicate for the narrative machine. So she plans to reset it.

“Last year, sometimes I felt like I was disappearing,” Bueckers said. “It’s hard. You’re recovering in the background and it’s super lonely. But I’ve leaned on my faith a lot, knowing that I’ll come back eventually. And to be back, it’s awesome.”

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