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UConn women's notes: Huskies surprise Team Impact teammate with trip to the Final Four

San Antonio — The UConn women's basketball players surprised their 8-year-old Team Impact teammate Daniela Ciriello on a Zoom call earlier this week, letting Ciriello know that she would be joining them for Friday night's NCAA tournament Final Four matchup with Arizona State at the Alamodome.

Ciriello, who was diagnosed with Cooley's Anemia — a genetic blood disorder — when she was 1, became an honorary member of the UConn team in 2018 through Team Impact, which connects children with serious or chronic illnesses to local college athletic teams.

This year has been a difficult one, however, due to COVID-19, although the team has made sure to keep in touch virtually with Ciriello.

"You're going to be right here with us," UConn junior Evina Westbrook told Ciriello in the video conference with her and her family. "Make sure you get your stretches in. We want you doing cartwheels."

"She's been amazing," Westbrook said of Ciriello in a session with the media Thursday. "She's just a gentle reminder of life is so precious. We're able to talk to her through Zoom, check in with her (about her) transfusions. We interact with her on social media; I know I do and a lot of people do on the team as well, commenting to say miss you, just showing her love."

The current UConn players, as well as those who graduated, have often visited Ciriello at the hospital during blood transfusions, celebrate holidays with her family in person or virtually and honor her at campus events, including First Night and Senior Night. She had a cardboard cutout of herself at Gampel Pavilion for all the Huskies' home games this season.

Westbrook said that having Ciriello as a part of the team is a source of energy for the Huskies and reminds them that there are people who count on them.

"For her to be able to come to the game, come out to the game and be here physically with everything she's been going through herself and her family, for her to come out here means the world to us," Westbrook said. "She's one of our biggest fans. She knows exactly what's going on in the game, takes pride in knowing and getting to know every single one of us.

"She's really just a blessing."

More hardware for Bueckers

UConn's Paige Bueckers earned another honor Friday as she was named Co-Freshman of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Bueckers shared the honor with Iowa's Caitlin Clark. Bueckers was also named a USBWA first team All-American.

Earlier this week, Bueckers was the first freshman in history to be named Associated Press National Player of the Year and also earned WBCA Co-Freshman of the Year honors along with Clark.

Named the River Walk Region Most Outstanding Player on Monday, scoring 28 points in UConn's narrow 69-67 victory over Baylor, Bueckers led the Huskies to their 13th straight Final Four. She leads the team with 20.1 points, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game as well as a .459 3-point field goal percentage.

"Nobody voted for her to be in the Final Four or to get 28 the other night. She earned that on her own," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said earlier in the week. "So, there are things in life that people vote on and they go, 'Here, take this.' Great. And there are things you earn. I think Paige earned everybody's vote and then she earned by the way she plays the right to be here in this Final Four."

8-0 in the Alamo City

UConn entered Friday night's game with an 8-0 NCAA tournament record in San Antonio, dating back to the 2002 Final Four.

In 2002, UConn defeated Tennessee 79-56 in the national semifinals at the Alamodome before topping Oklahoma 82-70 in the national championship game behind 20 points and 13 rebounds from Final Four MVP Swin Cash, finishing unbeaten at 39-0.

UConn also swept the 2010 Final Four in San Antonio with wins over Baylor (70-50) and Stanford (53-70), getting 23 points in the championship game from MVP Maya Moore in what was the Huskies 78th straight victory.

This season, with the entire NCAA women's basketball tournament being played in San Antonio, UConn has added wins over High Point (102-59), Syracuse (83-47), Iowa (92-72) and Baylor (69-72) headed into Friday night's game with Arizona.

Quotable

Arizona coach Adia Barnes on being just the second former WNBA player to coach a team to the Final Four, following South Carolina's Dawn Staley — Barnes also joins Staley as one of two Black women coaching in the Final Four, a first, and she's the mother of a 6-month old daughter, Capri:

"I represent a lot. I'm proud. I think you don't have to stop coaching when you're a mom. You just have a village around you. I have some great support, so I bring my 6-month old whenever. I'm feeding her right before the game.

"When we can represent more than one thing, I think women are kick-ass; we can handle a lot. I wouldn't have been able to handle half the stuff I could handle if I didn't play pro and handled adversity as a pro player. Maybe that made me more resilient, stronger."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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