The UConn women‚Äôs basketball team‚Äôs last game was played March 9 when it defeated Cincinnati to capture its seventh and last American Athletic Conference Tournament title.
But to coach Geno Auriemma, the Huskies have a big winner this spring - redshirt junior Evina Westbrook, who recently completed her rehabilitation program following left knee surgery on Dec. 31.
‚ÄúShe‚Äôs been working her butt off and I‚Äôm really proud of her and the incredible job she‚Äôs done,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said on Thursday. ‚ÄúEvina‚Äôs taken on a huge challenge and she‚Äôs been terrific. She‚Äôs done a great job staying in touch with our incoming freshman and with our returning players. Everything that she‚Äôs accomplished has been spectacular and I could not be happier for her.‚ÄĚ
Westbrook, a 6-foot-1 guard from Salem, Oregon, transferred to UConn a year ago after spending her first two seasons at the University of Tennessee. On June 4, shortly after arriving in Storrs for summer school, she had surgery on her left knee that troubled her throughout her sophomore year with the Lady Vols.
She worked her way back and was at a point of doing drills with the Huskies as she waited for the NCAA‚Äôs decision on her request for a waiver for immediate eligibility. But before UConn‚Äôs game at Vanderbilt on Nov. 13, the school announced the NCAA had denied her final appeal and she‚Äôd sit out the 2019-20 season. The New Year‚Äôs Eve surgery made it a moot point.
When UConn switched to online classes in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Westbrook remained on campus to continue her rehabilitation.
‚ÄúAnd she got it done under tough circumstances having to be here by herself,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said.
Westbrook, who turns 22 on Sept. 28, will be the oldest player on the Huskies‚Äô 10-person roster and one of six who will be wearing a UConn uniform for the first time along with incoming freshmen Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards, Piath Gabriel, Mir McLean, and Nika Muhl.
A 2017 McDonald‚Äôs All-American and USA Today‚Äôs high school Player of the Year, Westbrook started all 64 games she played at Tennessee. She was named to the Southeastern Conference all-freshman team, then as a sophomore averaged team highs of 14.9 points and 5.3 assists along with 3.6 rebounds.
Auriemma is excited to see her game now that she‚Äôs healthy enough to get back on the court.
‚ÄúWhen someone says, ‚ÄėYou‚Äôre cleared,‚Äô it‚Äôs hard to say what that means,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs being cleared, and then there‚Äôs being able to play basketball. We haven‚Äôt had practice and I‚Äôve not been on the floor to see her with my own eyes. Under normal circumstances, I would have a good idea where she stands. Under the circumstances we have now, I have no idea.
‚ÄúEvina hasn‚Äôt been played in so long, and then you throw in the injury and the surgeries ‚Ä¶ But everything she‚Äôs done, we could not ask for any more from her. It‚Äôs been so impressive.‚ÄĚ
With the graduation of point guard Crystal Dangerfield and the departure of wing Megan Walker, a healthy Westbrook will have the opportunity to play a big role. When the Huskies will be able to get together due to the pandemic is unknown.
Auriemma hopes that day is in the near future.
‚ÄúFor our returning kids it will be an opportunity to get ready and lead and for our freshmen it will be an opportunity to see where they stack up,‚ÄĚ the Hall of Fame coach said.
‚ÄúFor Evina, she‚Äôll be able to test herself after all the hard work she‚Äôs put in. I hope she finds that it‚Äôs all worth it and that she sees the results on the floor.‚ÄĚ
Jamelle Elliott served as an interim assistant coach for the final month of last season after Jasmine Lister took a leave of absence from Auriemma‚Äôs staff due to personal reasons.
With Lister‚Äôs resignation on May 6, will the interim tag be removed?
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre trying to figure out what‚Äôs best for Jamelle,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúShe did a tremendous job. I know her, and she knows us and our program. It would be an ideal situation to pull it off.‚ÄĚ
Elliott played four years at UConn and was an assistant coach on Auriemma‚Äôs staff for another 12 years. She was a forward on the Huskies‚Äô first national championship team in 1995 and UConn won five more titles with her on its sideline. She returned to the school in 2018 as an associate athletic director for the school‚Äôs National C Club following nine seasons as the head coach at Cincinnati.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre going to keep working on it,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs no rush, but I‚Äôd envision something happening sooner than later.‚ÄĚ
Auriemma was thrilled to hear about the school‚Äôs early success with season ticket sales for his team as well as the men‚Äôs basketball team.
‚ÄúI think people are excited to get a chance to watch basketball again,‚ÄĚ Auriemma said. ‚ÄúFor our team, people are excited about the possibilities and the new players we have coming in. There‚Äôs tremendous excitement going back to the Big East. Everything is set up for it being an unbelievable year.‚ÄĚ
The women will host the 10 other Big East teams as well as non-league opponents Arkansas-Little Rock, Dayton, Maryland, South Carolina, and Texas. It is possible that a non-league home game could be delayed as UConn is currently two games over the NCAA limit.