Westbrook preparing for final season with Huskies

Published on Monday, 11 October 2021 21:15
Written by CARL ADAMEC

Journal Inquirer

STORRS - Evina Westbrook is where she wants to be and feeling the way she wants to feel.

That’s a winning combination for the UConn women’s basketball team.

The fifth-year senior guard began what she said is likely her final college season Friday as the Huskies held their first practice at the Werth Champions Center following her first healthy summer in three years.

“Day-in and day-out being with my trainer Janelle (Francisco), she has helped me since the first day I’ve been on campus,” Westbrook said. “Kind of like Diana Taurasi goes through, I have to be here in the morning, in the afternoon, in between classes and meetings just to make sure that my body is right for practice.

“It’s been a long way coming for sure. To be where I’m at now, playing with no pain. I don’t even think about my knee at all. That’s the best feeling ever.”

Westbrook had two surgeries on her left knee in 2019 after transferring from Tennessee in May. She sat out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules but would have been unable to play anyway.

She returned to action a year ago for coach Geno Auriemma and averaged 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists as the Huskies went 28-2, swept the Big East regular season and tournament titles, and advanced to their 13th consecutive NCAA Final Four. She reached the 1,000-point plateau for her career in UConn’s Sweet 16 win over Iowa when she just missed a triple-double, finishing with 17 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists.

“If I’m able to come back and play like I did in the tournament and be consistent and play healthy and have my mind right, it’s going to be a great year,” Westbrook said.

“Throughout all last year you could see that I was up and down and not really consistent,” she added. “Mentally … And I felt it. My coaches would say that I’m up and down. I need be consistent at practice, set the tone each and every day. I need to be that voice in practice and have them know, ‘We expect the same Evina every day in practice and show up in the games.’ I’ve learned from my mistakes of last year.”

Being healthy allowed the Salem, Oregon native to do the work to improve physically and mentally.

She traveled to Las Vegas for workouts and to Montana to train with UConn teammates Paige Bueckers and Piath Gabriel. When home, she also had the opportunity to play in the men’s Portland Pro-Am League.

“It was my first time doing that and it was an amazing experience,” Westbrook said. “I grew up playing with guys all of the time and there were a couple there that I played with. They already knew that I wasn’t out there just to play. For the others, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a girl on the court.’ But, hey, I was out there to ball just like those guys. ‘Don’t take it light on me because I’m not going to take it light on you.’

“I was able to do some things that made them think, ‘We have to play against her just like any other player.’ That was a cool feeling.”

Playing through the aches and pains in her knee and of the season Westbrook started all 30 games a year ago and averaged 30.7 minutes per outing. It wasn’t always easy.

But with added depth, Westbrook may not have to play as many minutes and still could maintain her productivity.

Though the competitor in her never wants to sit on the bench.

“I’m not worried about my minutes at all,” Westbrook said. “If Coach plays me, Coach plays me. I have the trust in who he puts out there. That’s not my focus. That’s not in my control.”

Westbrook announced two days after the Huskies’ national semifinal loss to Arizona that she would bypass the 2021 WNBA Draft and go about the “unfinished business” of trying to help UConn to a 12th NCAA title.

She could still return to the Huskies in 2022-23 if she wanted thanks to the NCAA waiver from last season, but the 23-year-old knows come April it will likely be time to move on.

“I’m pretty sure that this is my last year,” Westbrook said. “It’s my fifth year but I feel like I’ve been in college for 10 years. This is my year that it’s going to come to an end so it’s time to go out with a bang.”

That journey is underway with the first practice now under their belts.

“All of us are just really anxious, the anticipation has been killing us,” Westbrook said. “We worked really hard to get to this point. So the first day, especially for our young guys and freshmen who don’t know what to expect, first-day jitters for sure. But we’re ready to work just like any other day.”

Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Monday, 11 October 2021 21:15. Updated: Monday, 11 October 2021 21:17.