HARTFORD, Conn. – UConn’s Azzi Fudd predicted earlier this month that the Huskies would become a “nasty” team once all of its players were healthy.
Star guard Paige Bueckers returned Friday from the left knee injury that had kept her out for more than two months, and No. 7 Connecticut looked like it was living up to Fudd’s expectations in a 93-38 rout of St. John’s.
The reigning national player of the year scored eight points and had two rebounds and one assist in the 12 minutes that coach Geno Auriemma allowed her to play. She had not been on the court since Dec. 5, when she suffered a tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus in her left knee during the final seconds of the Huskies’ win over Notre Dame.
“I was nervous, but I was just so excited, so happy,” Bueckers said after Friday’s game. “I’ve never been more happy to be on a minutes restriction. Just to see my name in a box score with minutes next to it is just surreal to me, amazing to me just to be back in this position.”
The sophomore didn’t start, but checked in with 3:41 left in the first quarter to a standing ovation with the Huskies already leading 19-4.
The fans were on their feet again after Bueckers made a couple of juke moves and drained her first shot to beat the first-quarter buzzer. The Huskies led 30-8 after 10 minutes.
“The first basket, it wouldn’t be me if it wasn’t something extra,” she said. “So, I don’t know, it was a lot of fun.”
Fudd led the Huskies (21-5, 15-1 Big East) with 19 points. Aaliyah Edwards added 16 and Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Caroline Ducharme each scored 13.
Coach Geno Auriemma said Bueckers’ return has given the entire team more confidence as it heads towards the postseason, in large part because the rest of his players have been forced to take on more responsibility in her absence.
“The team that she came back to is a better team, has a better understanding of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “It has more players that can do more things than they could do the last time she played.”
Camree Clegg and Kadaja Bailey each had nine points for St. John’s (11-17, 7-11), which had won four of its previous five games.
The Red Storm was never in this one. UConn scored the game’s first 17 points, led 51-19 at the half and 78-28 after three quarters.
But Fudd said she doesn’t feel the team has quite arrived at her standard of being “nasty.”
“Not yet, not yet,” she said. “We’re going to get better.”
St. John’s: The Red Storm came in averaging 73.8 points points per game. They were held to 26.4% shooting (14 of 53) in this one.
Coach John Tartamella said Bueckers’ return may have given the Huskies a lift, but had little to do with his team’s poor performance.
“Obviously we just had to be ready whether she was going to play or not,” he said. “UConn is not a team that is not going to show up.”
UConn: Bueckers averaged 21.2 points, 6.2 assists and 5.5 rebounds in the six games she played before her injury. UConn went 15-4 without her, falling out of the top 10 for a short time, which was the first time that had happened since 2005. She was one of eight UConn players to miss at least two games this season. Edwards and Evina Westbrook have been the only players to make an appearance in every game this season.
“Because of that, they feel like they’ve built up a reserve,” Auriemma said. “They are in better shape, because they’ve played so many minutes. They’re mentally, hopefully, a little bit better because of what they went through.”
UConn outscored St. John’s 50-10 in the paint and 21-0 on the fast break. The Huskies also outrebounded the Red Storm 41-23.
UConn has now won six straight headed into Sunday’s season regular-season finale, which is likely to get the attention of some voters, especially with Bueckers back.
St. John’s: The Red Storm finish the regular season at Marquette on Sunday.
UConn: The Huskies also close the regular season on Sunday when they return to campus to host Providence.