Published December 17. 2011 4:00AM
R.J. Evans can't imagine life without basketball.
He wants to continue to play for as long as he can.
So when a hip flexor injury forced him to miss the majority of last season at Holy Cross, he had trouble dealing with the inaction. He broke down in his room and cried.
"I missed the game a lot," Evans said. "It was tough. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. I've never sat out a whole season and had to just watch my teammates play. It was harder because we were struggling as a team.
"… But I learned a lot from that and I think I've showed that this year with more maturity in my game."
Now healthy and enjoying a productive season as starring member of the Crusaders, Evans, a Norwich Free Academy graduate, returns home to play against ninth-ranked UConn Sunday afternoon at the XL Center in Hartford.
Over 30 family members and friends will be on hand to cheer on the 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard in his first appearance against UConn.
"This game has been marked on my calendar since the beginning of the year," Evans said. "I'm really excited to come back home and play. I've got a lot of family and friends coming so it should be a fun experience.
"It's definitely special to me."
A redshirt junior, Evans has played a vital and versatile role for the Crusaders. He ranks among the team leaders in scoring (12.4 points), rebounding (4.7), assists (2.7), steals (2.3) and minutes per game (30.9).
As one of the team's veterans, he's also embraced leadership responsibilities.
"That's one of the things that coach (Milan Brown) stresses to me every day in practice, you've got to lead this team and be our energy guy and spark guy do the little things because guys respond to you and what's you've doing because you're a veteran," Evans said. "It's a natural role for me."
Evans has high expectations for the Crusaders (4-6). He thinks they'll challenge for the Patriot League title. They were picked to finish third in the league preseason poll.
A difficult early-season schedule put them in a hole. Five of their losses came on the road, including at Providence (82-77), just one of several games that Holy Cross failed to hold a lead in the second half.
"I'm more optimistic about this year because a lot of games that we lost we probably should have won," Evans said. "If we can put together a 40-minute game, we'll be tough to beat."
Sunday's game will be another measuring stick to chart the team's progress. Holy Cross hasn't fared well against ranked teams, losing its last 27 games.
The Crusaders relish the opportunity to pull off an upset.
"That's definitely something we're all looking to because everybody on our team thinks we can play with them and give them a run for their money," Evans said. "You'll see that on Sunday."
It's not a stretch to say that Evans has exceeded expectations. When he committed to Holy Cross, he was just happy to play Division I college basketball.
He had a terrific freshman year, leading the team in scoring and into the conference tournament championship while winning conference rookie-of-the-year honors. He had a solid sophomore season, too, until the injury sidelined him eight games into his junior year.
As far as the future, he'll come back for a fifth year next season after receiving a medical redshirt.
He's already thinking about the next stop on his basketball journey. Law school also is a consideration.
"When I get out of Holy Cross, the first thing I want to do is to try to play overseas because I can't see myself stop playing basketball after college because I feel like I can still play," Evans said.