Evina Westbrook, named captain, feels like UConn is where she's supposed to be
Evina Westbrook had been on the UConn campus all of two days when she had left knee surgery on June 4, 2019. So when she says it was her new women's basketball teammates who first made her feel at home on the Storrs campus, it's no cliche. They really did.
"That's the honest truth," said Westbrook, who sat out last season after her transfer from Tennessee. "Right away I wasn't able to walk. I couldn't really do anything.
"My team really helped me move into my apartment, Batouly (Camara), Megan (Walker), Crystal (Dangerfield), all of them. And my mother was here as well. I felt bad, but at the same time they were like, 'E, this is what we're here for.' All of them helped me get situated and really made me feel like I was supposed to be here."
Westbrook, a redshirt junior, has been named one of UConn's three captains along with returning juniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. There are no seniors on the Huskies' roster.
Westbrook speaks with fondness of her teammates. With Dangerfield, who had surgery around the same time she did, Westbrook went around trying to figure out how to open doors with her crutches. She still speaks to Walker, playing in the WNBA for the New York Liberty, nearly every day and said that Walker's accomplishments warm her heart.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said during a video conference with the media Monday that Westbrook, who was denied an NCAA waiver which would have allowed her to play last year, handled that disappointment better than he did.
"I felt bad for her that she had to sit out but she handled it great," Auriemma said. "She worked her butt off. When the surgery happened, she took it all in stride. She did her rehab ... and never complained, never said a word."
Westbrook, a 6-foot guard from Salem, Ore., had another surgery on that same knee on Dec. 31. While the rest of the team returned home to finish the spring semester on-line due to the COVID-19 crisis, Westbrook remained on campus to rehab, joining Akok Akok, a member of the men's basketball team who had undergone surgery to repair an Achilles injury.
"She just worked and worked and worked," Auriemma said. "Now when I watch her out here, she's not 100%, she probably still feels it, but man, her competitiveness just really stands out. I couldn't be happier. She's been great, absolutely great."
"I think I struggled at first, just being the competitor that I am, not wanting to sit out," Westbrook said. "But just over time, really embracing that role ... even though I wasn't able to play last year, I still had to be a great teammate. It really makes you appreciate the game a lot more."
Westbrook, the No. 2 overall recruit in the high school Class of 2017 and the Gatorade Oregon Girls' Basketball Player of the Year, started all 64 games during her career at Tennessee. She was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2017-18 and the next year led the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game to go along with 5.3 assists. She scored a season-high 29 points in a game against Stanford.
She declined Monday to talk about what exactly happened to end her career at Tennessee, but Westbrook announced her transfer following a disappointing first-round NCAA tournament loss in 2019 and the firing of head coach Holly Warlick.
Westbrook's original waiver request was denied by the NCAA on Nov. 1 last year and UConn appealed. With Westbrook having traveled to an away game at Vanderbilt in anticipation of being cleared to play, the appeal was denied on Nov. 13. Auriemma went on a rant.
"If you knew what the environment was, which I can't say, you would not want your kid in that environment," Auriemma said at the time of the situation at Tennessee.
Moving on, Westbrook said this week that she needs to merit her title as captain.
"I think I have to earn it with my teammates first. You can call someone a captain, but I think earning my teammates' respect first is the most important part to me. So just being a really vocal leader, being a leader by example, is something that I really have to show day in and day out.
"... There's going to be a time, like, 'OK, I'm down. I'm sad.' But once I get over it, there's no looking back. From there on out it's just positive."
In UConn's new pod system, which groups each captain with two or three other players both to live and to work out, Westbrook is teamed with a pair of freshmen in 5-foot-10 guard Nika Muhl of Zagreb, Croatia, and 5-8 walk-on guard Autumn Chassion of Lafayette, La.
Westbrook is already distinguishing herself as captain. She compares her two roommates with her 12-year-old brother Tko, back at home.
"Honestly, I didn't know what it was going to be like at first, but it has been really, really, really great," Westbrook said of the pod setup. "I have a 12-year-old brother at home and it's kind of like I have two little sisters to watch after. If I go to the store, I come back, they're both laying in my bed watching NBA games or WNBA games, like 'heeeyy!' Little things like that.
"Like if there's a problem, 'oh, we'll just call E.' It's been really fun having those two around. I really love having them around. It's something I'm not used to but I'm really glad I have them. ... We're being watched constantly. These younger guys are watching our every move."
Muhl joked Monday that Westbrook is like the mom of their pod — "she's taking very good care of us, being a leader on and off the court," Muhl said.
Westbrook said she's stronger mentally. She's stronger physically.
She has been made to feel that this is where she's supposed to be.
"When I pretty much got the clear (to resume basketball activities), it was a great feeling," Westbrook said. "I have a lot of work to do just to get back to being in shape in general. ... I'm just excited for the journey."
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Before arriving at UConn, Burns was a reserve running back and played on special teams at the University of Miami.
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