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UConn women happy to be together ... sort of ... again

Since the UConn women's basketball team has been back on campus, the players have been split up into pods. Each grouping is led by one of the three captains. Each has two of the six freshmen. They live together and work out together.

"We can't intermingle. We're not even allowed to be in each others' apartment," junior co-captain Christyn Williams said.

On Monday, all 11 of the UConn players, as well as coach Geno Auriemma, were available via Zoom video conference, where they spoke of resuming basketball, the uncertainty of the upcoming season due to COVID-19, the team chemistry with the handful-plus of newcomers — Auriemma called the freshman class "a breath of fresh air" — and of matters regarding social justice.

The players spoke according to pods, with each person filling an individual 15-minute question-and-answer session.

First up, for example, was Williams, followed by sophomore Aubrey Griffin, freshman Piath Gabriel of Manchester, N.H., and finally freshman Paige Bueckers from Hopkins, Minn. Those four — two on the quieter side, two chatty, two returnees, two freshmen — form a pod and are currently sharing an apartment, one which Griffin said has a projector in the living room, handy for watching NBA and WNBA games.

"We've been with each other a lot," Griffin said. "I've gotten to know the two freshmen (in that pod) pretty well, so it's been good. Basketball-wise, they're both hard workers. Off the court, we get along. They're both funny, so that's good."

Gabriel is a 6-foot-5 forward who graduated from Bradford Christian Academy. Bueckers, a 5-11 guard, the top recruit in the nation in the Class of 2020 and the Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year for all sports, is perhaps the most anticipated new arrival on campus. She will appear in the September issue of Sports Illustrated along with Gatorade Male Athlete of the Year Arik Gilbert, a football player from Marietta, Ga., set to play for LSU.

Bueckers arrived on camera Monday with a vibrant smile. She said being at UConn is what she's wanted since she was a little kid and that she's learned a great deal — from Williams in particular — just in the first week the Huskies have been together.

"Just with Christyn, just seeing how hard she works, seeing how hard she goes in the workouts," Bueckers said of Williams. "It's obviously something I want to be like and I want to aspire to be like her in that regard, her just kind of leading by example and showing me how hard it is to be a player here and how hard you have to work."

Bueckers said one of the reasons she chose UConn was because of the team's familial atmosphere. She has already had contact with past greats Breanna Stewart, Katie Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Sue Bird, who have all given her advice.

"They said freshman year is probably going to be the hardest year, maybe of your life, in school and in basketball," Bueckers said. "I'm kind of going in expecting that but I'm willing to learn. They said just soak it in and enjoy every second of it and go in with a positive attitude and just work hard and be willing to be coachable and it'll make it a lot easier."

Auriemma, whose team finished 29-3 last season with its seventh straight American Athletic Conference tournament title, had gained momentum late in the 2019-20 season before the NCAA tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus.

The Huskies were slated for a return to the Big East Conference this season.

"I mean, it's not anything remotely resembling normal," Auriemma said Monday of his team's current setup. "There's a team on campus, so that's good. There's stuff happening on the court, so that's good. It's been good in the sense we can teach a bunch of stuff."

Auriemma said in one sense the back-to-basics approach is refreshing, but later added his concern that if the season doesn't start on time, "what're you supposed to do for four months?"

"Don't make me cry here," he said at one point.

Auriemma said that he greeted Bueckers after her first individual workout by telling her, "they're going to kill you, they're going to eat you up, you have no chance," but that Bueckers had already improved Monday by her third workout.

"Put it this way, I'm glad we have her," Auriemma said. "There's some things she does that other players wish they could do. ... I'm getting to know the freshmen really well; they have a great way about them. They're competitive as hell."

The two other pods of UConn players have junior captain Olivia Nelson-Ododa teamed with sophomore Anna Makurat and freshmen Mir McLean and Aaliyah Edwards and junior captain Evina Westbrook with freshmen Nika Muhl and walk-on Autumn Chassion.

"We play games, we watch movies, we got some puzzles, CD (associate coach Chris Dailey) has these team activities we do through Zoom," Williams said. "I just want to have a season. I just literally want to have a season."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

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