STORRS - Evina Westbrook has always been a scorer. She finished with more than 1,700 points at South Salem High in Oregon where she was a two-time state champion. As a sophomore at the University of Tennessee two seasons ago, she led the Lady Vols’ offensive attack.
Maybe her shooting touch caught up with her here in the third quarter of the UConn women’s basketball team’s Big East game with Creighton Thursday at Gampel Pavilion. She hit three shots in a row, including a 3-pointer, to match her total field goals in her first 2½ games with the Huskies.
But she has found ways to make a point to coach Geno Auriemma to stay on the floor. And as the first full week of UConn’s regular season goes on, the 6-foot guard has earned a rising fund of Auriemma’s trust with the latest effort coming in the third-ranked Huskies’ 80-47 victory over the Bluejays.
“It’s very important to me, because I’m the oldest player out there,” Westbrook said of the confidence that Auriemma is showing in her. “Just knowing what I’m doing and making sure everyone else knows what they’re doing.
“I want to be that spark on defense. I had one of their best players and I don’t think she even scored in the first half. So really being a great energy source on defense and a really good lockdown defender and keeping my man in front of me who is going to be a main focus on their team pretty much every game is going to be important to me.”
Westbrook did the dirty work in blanking Creighton leading scorer Temi Carda in the first half when the game was decided. By the time Carda did get on the board, her team was down by 26.
Consider this. Westbrook was a combined 1-for-9 from the floor at Seton Hall Tuesday and in the first half Thursday. Yet she was on the bench for only nine of a possible 60 minutes.
It’s something Auriemma has talked about for decades, that there’s a difference between shooting well and playing well.
“I think what Evina did, which was really good, is she took the ball to the basket and she got herself involved defensively,” Auriemma said. “I think that’s what she can bring to our team on a regular basis. Get us into something, play really good defense on one of the other team’s better guards, get out in transition, attack the basket a little in our halfcourt offense, and make a shot once in awhile. There has been a little bit of each of those things in our first three games.
“Obviously if she can become a consistent 3-point shooter that would be tremendous.”
Her only shot in 19 first-half minutes Thursday was from behind the arc. She scored all eight of her points in the third quarter when the Huskies (3-0 overall, 2-0 Big East) had a 28-point period to stretch their advantage.
Remember, it was just her third contest in six days coming after not playing a single game for 630 days.
“I definitely think it was just what the defense was giving me at the time,” Westbrook said. “In the first half, I didn’t see any opportunities for me and I didn’t want to force any shots. My teammates were getting open shots and moving well so I didn’t really have a problem with it. I was more aggressive in the second half going off what the defense was giving me.
“I’m comfortable, because that is what my team needs from me. Also, we have only played three games, and I haven’t played in so long. I’m really not trying to go out and force anything. I’m just letting the game come to me.”
No one will say Westbrook transferred here to become a defensive stopper.
If that happens, though, UConn will be a stronger contender for another Final Four berth and its 12th national championship.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing defense, but it has definitely been taken to another level when you have the UConn jersey on,” Westbrook said. “Especially in practice there is a much bigger emphasis. Overall, we have to get a stop and your man cannot score or it’s a problem.
“Just knowing that and having that mentality overall for everyone not just me is going to be huge for us this year.”
There was a small scare in the second half when she seemed to be favoring her twice surgically-repaired left knee. But Westbrook said it was her hamstring, on the knee, that felt tight and she re-entered the game and finished with 32 minutes.
Through three games, she’s averaging 5.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.25-to-1, and 2.0 steals in 28.3 minutes.
“She plays super aggressive and it’s a huge momentum change for us,” said UConn center Olivia Nelsaon-Ododa, who was the offensive star against Creighton with 24 points. “She just gets after it. When she is playing like that and is super aggressive, it just brings great things to our team.”
Westbrook will try to bring it again Saturday when the Huskies host Xavier. And that will help her score more points with her coaches and teammates.