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Captain and confidante, UConn's Evina Westbrook back for another season

Storrs — Last year's seven freshmen, including National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers, referred to Evina Westbrook as "Momma E," an affectionate tribute to Westbrook's leadership role as a captain and confidante for the members of the UConn women's basketball team.

It turns out Bueckers and Co. are somewhat territorial about the nickname for Westbrook, so this year's freshmen had to come up with something different. They went with "Grandma E" for the 23-year-old redshirt senior guard.

"I'm trying to change that narrative," Westbrook said Friday inside the lobby of the Werth Champions Center, where UConn was about to practice for the first time this season. "I'm cool with 'Momma E,' but 'Grandma E,' I'm not sold on it yet. I just, I'm not really sold on 'Grandma' yet. I'm not that old."

"She's accepted it and I think she loves it now," freshman Azzi Fudd said. "She won't admit it ... but she answers to it."

Westbrook, from Salem, Oregon, where she was the top-ranked guard in the nation out of high school, originally played at Tennessee for two years before transferring to UConn prior to the 2019-20 season. She sat out that season due to NCAA transfer rules, undergoing two knee surgeries during that time, before finally getting to play for the Huskies a year ago.

She earned the honor of serving as one of UConn's co-captains along with juniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. And as the only player on the Huskies' roster over the age of 21, all eyes were on her as she helped will the youthful team to its 13th straight Final Four, with the entire NCAA tournament taking place in San Antonio.

Westbrook, finally mentally and physically over the pain of her previous knee injury, starred in the NCAA tournament. She finished with 17 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in UConn's Sweet 16 victory over Iowa, then played 40 minutes each in an Elite Eight win over Baylor and in the Huskies' national semifinal loss to Arizona.

She averaged 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, starting all 30 games.

Then, with the prognosicators predicting Westbrook to be a first-round WNBA Draft pick, but with the rest of the Huskies slated to return this season, Westbrook made her decision. She decided to return, resuming her role as the Huskies' heartbeat.

"A couple different things," Westbrook said of her reasons to return. "For one, I just didn't feel like it was my time to leave. When I got to the (NCAA) tournament, I just kind of told myself, 'Evina, if you're able to play a year like this, healthy — mentally I was right, physically, emotionally, everything — then I would have a great year.'

"Two, I really couldn't leave these guys. Just the word 'family' is so played out; we're so much closer than that it's ridiculous. I just felt like it wasn't the right time to leave them. And then, I just wanted a ring. Now it's time to take my game to another level, take this team to another level."

Westbrook, who competed for a time over the summer in the Portland Pro-Am men's basketball league in her home state of Oregon — "I was like 'I'm here to ball just like all you guys are; don't take it light because I'm not taking it light on you,'" she said of playing in the men's league — will be part of a deep 14-player UConn roster.

The competitive nature of practice is next-level, beginning with Bueckers, who won the 2021 Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, Associated Press and U.S. Basketball Writers' Association national player of the year awards and was a WBCA, AP and USBWA All-American as a freshman.

Bueckers, who averaged 20 points and 5.8 assists per game last year, missed the team's summer workouts after undergoing right ankle surgery in May.

The Huskies also boast the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation with the arrival of Fudd, Caroline Ducharme and Amari DeBerry, with Fudd named the national high school player of the year. They gained graduate transfer Dorka Juhasz, as well, who previously played at Ohio State.

"I think all of us are just really anxious," Westbrook said. "The anticipation has just kind of been killing us. First day, our younger guys, our freshmen, they don't really know what to expect, just a lot of first-day jitters for sure, but at the same time we're ready to work just like any other day.

"I think just how we ended (last year) was not how we wanted to go out. It just wasn't us. I think that just kind of drives us every day."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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