March Madness: Paige Bueckers leads UConn to win vs. Jackson State in long-awaited NCAA tournament return

Paige Bueckers waited two years for UConn's matchup with Jackson State on her home court Saturday. It was the 22-year-old's first appearance in the NCAA women's tournament in 720 days, and she didn't miss a beat.

She was the first player to score for UConn with a quick jumper, which she followed up with a highlight steal and layup three minutes later.

The redshirt junior went on to score 28 points in her long-awaited return to the tourney, helping the Huskies to an 86-64 win. Bueckers was impactful in every area of the box score, adding 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block to her final stat line.

She was one of three Huskies to score in double digits. Freshman guard Ashlynn Shade had 26 points, while senior forward Aaliyah Edwards added 20 points and 10 rebounds.

The performance marked her 24th 20-point game this season, an accolade she notched in the third quarter. By the end of the first half, Bueckers and Edwards had 33 points between them, more than Jackson State's 28 points between the first two quarters. Edwards notably wore a clear face mask during the game, protecting a broken nose she sustained during practice on March 9.

Bueckers is now the fourth UConn player in the past 25 years to have multiple career NCAA tournament games with more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists, per ESPN. She's in great company, joining the likes of Breanna Stewart, Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams.

What stands out in Bueckers' case, is the adversity she's overcome to reach this point in her collegiate career. She missed the bulk of her sophomore campaign with a non-contact leg injury and even had ankle surgery in April 2021. After missing the entire 2022-23 season with a torn ACL, Bueckers has been at the top of her game this year. She averaged a career-high 21.3 points per game en route to being named an AP First-Team All-American.

It's been a deliberate build since Bueckers' first regular-season minutes of the current campaign, which she labeled as a "bad game" in November. She went from "trying to get the whole year back on each possession," to a new level of poise. She didn't have a single turnover on Saturday.

The win kept the Huskies' winning streak alive, as they haven’t lost in the first round since a 1993 loss to No. 11 Louisville. Consider it a birthday gift for head coach Geno Auriemma. He turned 70 on Saturday, which his players commemorated by wearing custom T-shirts after the game.

For Jackson State, it marked the end of a historic season. The program received its first-ever vote in the AP women’s basketball Top 25 poll this month. This came after the team recorded an undefeated 18-0 record in the Southwestern Athletic Conference en route to its fifth consecutive regular-season title.

Senior guard Ti’lan Boler led the charge with 25 points. Senior guard Miya Crump also brought some excitement in the second quarter. Listed at 6-foot-1, she was called for goaltending after getting some major airtime on an attempted block of a Bueckers breakaway layup.