STORRS - It was an ovation usually reserved for the legends of UConn womenâs basketball.
When UConn students got their first chance to cheer for Huskiesâ sophomore guard and reigning national Player of the Year Paige Bueckers at First Night Friday, they responded by trying to blow the roof off of Gampel Pavilion.
For the first time since March 2020, all seemed normal again.
âItâs a chance for our students to get into the building,â UConn coach Geno Auriemma said prior to the festivities. âSome of the kids who were freshmen last year that came to UConn with all these great expectations of going to games and filling the place up and having a great time, they didnât get a chance to do that. Tonightâs for them. And itâs a chance for our players to be kids. Sometimes that gets lost, theyâre just a bunch of kids.â
Auriemma and menâs coach Dan Hurley received warm welcomes as did their players as First Night returned after a one-year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the raucous start didnât last long as workers were unable to raise the basket that was in front of the stage set up for introductions. After a half-hour delay and with students already leaving the building, the womenâs team scrimmaged 4x4 halfcourt for 10 minutes and the menâs team did not scrimmage at all.
Auriemma was likely not disappointed, though. The Hall of Fame coach was happy with the progress his team has made since official practice started Oct. 8.
âActually, itâs been pretty good,â he said. âIâve been pleasantly surprised to be honest with you. We have a lot of work to do, obviously. With nine freshmen and sophomores on the team, things move slowly. Considering that, weâve gotten a bunch of stuff accomplished.â
UConn will hold a âsecret scrimmageâ against a Division I opponent before playing its one exhibition against Division II Fort Hays State on Nov. 7. The regular season opener is Nov. 14 against Arkansas at the XL Center.
Bueckers, who had ankle surgery during the offseason, is progressing well.
âPaige is Paige,â Auriemma said. âPaige is more comfortable than she was last year. Sheâs not as hesitant to take shots as she was last year.â
UConn students also got their first look at the Huskiesâ freshman class of Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme, Amari DeBerry, and Saylor Poffenbarger, though Poffenbarger was an early enrollee in January.
They have made an impression.
âThey have amazing moments and times they show you how talented they are and how good they can be,â Auriemma said. âThatâs been really encouraging. Then there are days that they really, really struggle. So I guess theyâre acting like typical freshmen.
âTheyâre at different stages of development, too. When you get to college, sometimes you pick up things quickly and sometimes it takes longer. If we had a game tomorrow, Azzi and Caroline look like theyâd blend right in. Saylor and Amari have been dealing with some health issues so they havenât had as much of a chance as Azzi and Caroline.â
Junior Aubrey Griffin sprained her left ankle this week and would not have taken part in the scrimmage.
Hurley said he instructed his team not to foul nor get near each other when it scrimmaged, which, of course, didnât happen.
He was hoping to see how his players, particularly his freshmen and sophomores, looked playing in front of more than family and friends at Gampel for the first time.
âItâs always a separator,â Hurley said. âItâs a separator with teams and itâs a separator with athletes. âWhoâs got the stomach? Whoâs wants to play when the lights are bright and youâve got a packed house?â
âPlayers all manage their nerves a lot differently. Youâve got a lot of guys who are practice all-stars who canât transfer it to the floor on game night. That was not an element in our sport last year. But guys who love the bright lights and the big moments, theyâll step to the forefront.â
Graduate student forward Tyler Polley (ankle) has been sidelined for a week but could return next week. Freshman point guard Rahsool Diggins (knee) has also been out of action and may be out another two weeks.
The menâs team is expected to have two âsecret scrimmagesâ before opening its season Nov. 9 against Central Connecticut State. According to Stadium.comâs Jeff Goodman, one of the scrimmages will be a week from today against Harvard.
UConn womenâs Class of 2022 commits Ayanna Patterson (6-2 wing, Fort Wayne, Indiana) and Isuneh Brady (6-3 forward, San Diego, California) are making their official visits this weekend. Also at UConn for First Night and the weekend is recruiting target Kiki Rice (5-11 guard, Washington, D.C.). Rice is rated the No. 2 recruit in the senior class by ESPN while Patterson is No. 4 and Brady is No. 5.
As the menâs team was practicing at the Werth Champions Center Friday, there was a loud noise outside the building.
Marine One with President Joe Biden on board was leaving. Biden was here for the dedication of the Dodd Center for Human Rights, named after former U.S. Sens. Thomas and Christopher Dodd.
âHe was leaving when I was yelling at the team,â Hurley said. âI donât know what was louder either the noise from the helicopter or me getting on someone about something like lack of screening.â
The Division I womenâs basketball committee and womenâs basketball oversight committee voted unanimously Thursday on a proposal that would expand the NCAA tournament field from 64 to 68 teams effective immediately. A final decision expected by mid-November.
Auriemma is supportive.
âThe more teams in the postseason, the better,â Auriemma said. âThe more the merrier. It will give more kids the chance to say they played in the NCAA tournament who otherwise would have been left out.â
The NCAA womenâs field has been 64 since 1994, when it expanded from 48. Under the new proposal, selection criteria for the opening round would be same as menâs basketball, in which the last four at-large teams and teams seeded 65-68 compete prior to start of first and second rounds
âThereâs a lot to be said about giving opportunities. I just hope they donât take the 10th team from a (Power 5) conference and throw them into that spot,â Auriemma said. âIâdd like to see it go to a mid-major that would normally be left out. They deserve to get in more than a team that finishes 10th in their league.â