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Auriemma happy to be back in the Big East, awaits return of players on campus

The Twitter feed of the UConn women's basketball team was, in a word, nostalgic Wednesday morning.

First, a celebration of the UConn athletic department's reunification with the Big East Conference, of which it was a founding member, then a short while later the announcement that Jamelle Elliott has officially rejoined the women's basketball staff as an assistant coach.

"I have such great memories of all those arenas," UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma said via a Zoom video conference Wednesday morning with members of the media, asked what he's most looking forward to about being in the Big East once again.

"Walking into Georgetown, walking into McDonough (Arena at Georgetown), it's just going to bring back a lot of memories, you know. Driving over to Providence ... those things, those little things and the people. There's a lot of people at those universities that are still there that were there when we left, so I'm looking forward to reconnecting with them."

Now, Auriemma said in his question-and-answer session which lasted a little less than an hour, all he has to do is figure out how to get all of his players back safely to campus in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

He is anticipating that seven of the 10 players, including junior captains Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook, will arrive the weekend of July 25-26. The other three have not been given clearance to re-enter the United States from their native countries.

Sophomore Anna Makurat hails from Sierakowice, Poland, while incoming freshmen Aaliyah Edwards is from Kingston, Ontario, in Canada and Nika Muhl is from Zagreb, Croatia.

"Nika needs to fly over from Zagreb; well the U.S. embassy (there) has not been open," Auriemma said. "These issues have been really, really, really difficult to overcome. We've had some people working on it. We've got some really good people in Washington, D.C., looking into how we do that for international students, not just athletes but kids that have enrolled here, gone to school. Hopefully we can work with the NCAA and say, 'How do we get this done?'

"... What zone offense are we running? I don't know. Do we have five players or do we have 10? I'm keeping my fingers crossed that something can be done to facilitate these kids being able to come over and go to school."

Auriemma, who joked that this is the longest time he's ever been in one place in his life, having not left Connecticut since March, said he was proud of the people of Connecticut for their response to the coronavirus. Connecticut now has fewer than 100 patients hospitalized due to the virus.

"We just buckled down and got it done," he said.

That said, Auriemma referred to the ongoing uncertainty as to the status of college sports.

"I'm not confident on anything anymore," he said. "A month ago I thought we're on the right track, things are great. It's already changed. Everything's changed. Everything's different ... how you get in the building, what you can do when you're in the building.

"If they figure out a way to do college football, then you know we'll be OK. If they don't, all bets are off for everybody."

Meanwhile, celebrations of UConn's return to the Big East were underway.

Auriemma and UConn men's basketball coach Dan Hurley were scheduled to appear on the first installment of the UConn Coaches' Road Show of 2020 later Wednesday on Facebook Live. This year's Road Show was moved to a virtual format due to the coronavirus.

The women's team finished 29-3 last season with its seventh straight American Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles, completing its stay in the league without ever losing a game. It now returns to the Big East, where it won or shared 19 Big East regular-season titles and captured 18 Big East tournament championships, including 16 in a 19-year span from 1994-2012.

UConn was a member of the Big East for 34 years beginning with the 1979-80 season.

The Huskies' return to the Big East was announced last June 27 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Auriemma said it seemed to him that was UConn's official welcome back.

"I don't think today feels any different than yesterday," Auriemma said Wednesday. "I kind of felt like we were in the conference from the time we had the press conference in New York City. I kind of felt like that was the day that we officially joined the Big East, even though I know today is the official day.

"Now that it's official, I guess there's no going back. They can't change their mind."

Elliott, meanwhile, a former UConn player and a member of the Huskies 1995 national championship team, was previously an assistant on Auriemma's staff from 1998-2009. UConn won five national championships during that time. She served as the head women's basketball coach at Cincinnati from 2009-18 before returning to UConn as the Associate Athletic Director for the National C Club.

She rejoined the women's basketball staff in February on an interim basis during a leave of absence by assistant Jasmine Lister, who has since left the staff.

"She's a great teacher, she's a great communicator, she's a great recruiter," Auriemma said of Elliott. "A lot of great things have happened to our program but this is right up there."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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