UConn basketball opens season with First Night Friday

Published on Sunday, 17 October 2021 21:09
Written by CARL ADAMEC

Journal Inquirer

STORRS - It was an ovation usually reserved for the legends of UConn women’s basketball.

When UConn students got their first chance to cheer for Huskies’ 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.

“It’s a chance for our students to get into the building,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said prior to the festivities. “Some 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 didn’t get a chance to do that. Tonight’s for them. And it’s a chance for our players to be kids. Sometimes that gets lost, they’re just a bunch of kids.”

Auriemma and men’s 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 didn’t 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 women’s team scrimmaged 4x4 halfcourt for 10 minutes and the men’s 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.

“Actually, it’s been pretty good,” he said. “I’ve 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, we’ve gotten a bunch of stuff accomplished.”

UConn will hold a “secret scrimmage” 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.

“Paige is Paige,” Auriemma said. “Paige is more comfortable than she was last year. She’s not as hesitant to take shots as she was last year.”

UConn students also got their first look at the Huskies’ 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.

“They have amazing moments and times they show you how talented they are and how good they can be,” Auriemma said. “That’s been really encouraging. Then there are days that they really, really struggle. So I guess they’re acting like typical freshmen.

“They’re 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 they’d blend right in. Saylor and Amari have been dealing with some health issues so they haven’t had as much of a chance as Azzi and Caroline.”

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, didn’t 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.

“It’s always a separator,” Hurley said. “It’s a separator with teams and it’s a separator with athletes. ‘Who’s got the stomach? Who’s wants to play when the lights are bright and you’ve got a packed house?’

“Players all manage their nerves a lot differently. You’ve got a lot of guys who are practice all-stars who can’t 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, they’ll step to the forefront.”

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 men’s team is expected to have two “secret scrimmages” before opening its season Nov. 9 against Central Connecticut State. According to Stadium.com’s Jeff Goodman, one of the scrimmages will be a week from today against Harvard.

RECRUIT REPORT

UConn women’s 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.

EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE

As the men’s 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.

“He was leaving when I was yelling at the team,” Hurley said. “I don’t know what was louder either the noise from the helicopter or me getting on someone about something like lack of screening.”

EXPANSION PLANS

The Division I women’s basketball committee and women’s 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.

“The more teams in the postseason, the better,” Auriemma said. “The 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.”

The NCAA women’s 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 men’s basketball, in which the last four at-large teams and teams seeded 65-68 compete prior to start of first and second rounds

“There’s a lot to be said about giving opportunities. I just hope they don’t take the 10th team from a (Power 5) conference and throw them into that spot,” Auriemma said. “I’dd 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.”



Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Sunday, 17 October 2021 21:09. Updated: Sunday, 17 October 2021 21:11.