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UConn's Butler plays the waiting game again. Injury slows debut. By Rich Elliott.

POSTED October 31, 2015
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By Rich Elliott

STORRS – The preseason had been one of great anticipation for UConn 6-foot-5 center Natalie Butler. The season opener at Ohio State Nov. 16 was drawing closer as the days passed. This was the date she had targeted after sitting out last season due to NCAA rules in the wake of transferring from Georgetown.

One unfortunate incident in practice, however, has left Butler to play the waiting game a bit longer. She will be sidelined until late December after tearing a ligament in her left thumb.

``I think it’s definitely tested me,’’ Butler said. ``I think what I’ve learned is that everything happens for a reason. You’ve got to take it in stride and I have great teammates that have been incredibly supportive and a great coaching staff that has reassured me. And the doctor that did my surgery, Dr. (Craig) Rodner, has given me a lot of confidence in trying to say, `We’ll get you back as soon as possible.’ So I have all the support I need. It definitely helps me knowing that my teammates are behind me and my coaches are behind me and my family.’’

Butler, who underwent surgery Oct. 26, sustained the injury when a pass struck her thumb and it bent it awkwardly while she was playing defense several weeks ago. There was a pop when her thumb was hit, loud enough that caused people to stop what they were doing.

Determined to persevere, Butler said that she actually practiced for four days in a splint before realizing that the ligament had completely ruptured. The critical point where she knew something was seriously wrong with her thumb came during a practice when she attempted to get up from the floor and her thumb bent completely backwards.

“Anybody that would be out for a couple months or that proverbial six to eight weeks, you would feel that … it’s not easy sitting out,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``And you add the fact that you sat out a year because you transferred, and then you were ready to play, you worked hard all summer, you’re in here working hard at the beginning of school and doing individuals, and you’re doing your part to get yourself ready and then something like that happens it’s frustrating more than anything. It’s not anything that you’re not going to be able to recover from. But the frustration of, ‘When am I going to get a chance to play? All I do is my conditioning and do my individual instruction. I work really hard but I don’t get any of the benefits of being on a really good team because I never get to play.’ It’s just frustrating.”

Butler, who said she has already lost sleep over the injury, will be in a cast for three weeks before transitioning to a splint. A potential target date for her return is Dec. 28 against Maryland in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York. This would see her miss the first nine games of the regular season.

“Rosemary (Ragle), the athletic trainer here, has been working with me every day, and we’re doing continuing conditioning so I will be ready to go when I come back,” Butler said. “And that’s all you can do. Because in this case scenario there was nothing I could’ve done to avoid it from happening. It was just one of those things. I had to accept that and move forward and now I’m sort of dealing with it.”

Without Butler in the lineup, the Huskies will need to collectively assume greater responsibility when it comes to rebounding. They do have size in 6-4 Breanna Stewart, 6-3 Katie Lou Samuelson, 6-2 Morgan Tuck, 6-2 De’Janae Boykin, 6-1 Napheesa Collier and 5-11 athletic dynamo Gabby Williams.

``Nat’s our biggest player and with her out right now it leaves a big gap,’’ Samuelson said. ``But we are still a very tall team. We’re not as strong without her. But I think with Stewie in there and me and Napheesa and Gabby and all of us bigs we’ll be able to get a lot of rebounds. I think we’ve been doing well right now, but it’s going to be a big help when she comes back.’’

Auriemma, as one would expect, has a different take on the situation. He does not believe that this size necessarily makes UConn better equipped to outduel the opposition on the boards while Butler is sidelined.

“We would be better equipped if we still had Kiah Stokes or Stefanie Dolson,” Auriemma said. “When you look at our team, it looks like we’ve got a lot of size because they’re all the same size. But we really don’t have that big guy in the middle like when we had Stefanie and like when we had Kiah where during parts of the game they can make a huge difference. Not so much on the offensive end, but on the defensive end they make a huge difference. And right now we don’t have that. We’ve probably given up more layups already in practice than we did all last year.”

It was increasingly difficult for Butler to initially take a positive approach to being sidelined for multiple weeks. She finds herself in good spirits at this point, diligently tackling the challenges she faces in the rehabilitation process.

“Every day you sort of have to wake up and say to yourself, ‘You have to push yourself. You’re sitting out. You’re not practicing. How can I push myself? How can I make myself a better player today,’’’ Butler said. ``Yes, I have this obstacle. But I need to put myself in the best possible position so when I come back just pick up where I left. Actually, I will be at a better point because I can still run and get my stamina up.”

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