Connecticut Post (Sunday)
UConn’s First Night: No hoops, all energy
STORRS — UConn’s First Night celebration is never actually about basketball, a convenient reality Friday night more so than ever because a collapsed basket stanchion thwarted plans for Geno Auriemma’s women and Dan Hurley’s men to hold scrimmages.
The event ended with an “oops” moment that sent confused fans back through the arena doors and scattering at different times across a campus that some refer to as “The Basketball Capital of the World,” a place made all the more vibrant for what did take place.
What matters most at every First Night are the sights and sounds and feelings and, especially this time around, that a student-only crowd of about 7,000 gathered, that Gampel Pavilion rocked, that Connecticut’s favorite building was enveloped in an energy absent since March 2020.
Spotlights cut through smoke wafting in the air. Music boomed. Evina Westbrook and R.J. Cole traded verbal jabs on stage. Amari DeBerry did the worm. Andre Jackson threw down some ridiculous dunks. And the loudest roar, by far, took place during introductions when the P.A. announcer said, “A 5-11 sophomore from Hopkins, Minnesota ...”
At that point, Paige Bueckers had been properly introduced in her own neighborhood after spending all of last season taking over the basketball world one empty building at a time.
The event, scratched last year due to the pandemic, was the unofficial tip-off to the 2021-22 season but it allowed anyone in the building to feel as if they had been transported into a shared basketball delirium nearly forgotten. It was wild until it was over, however incomplete. Hurley’s team dunked for fun. Auriemma’s team did actually scrimmage a bit, half-court work, pretty informal.
But the building throbbed with one giant heartbeat for a half-hour or so and that was UConn’s biggest home victory of the past 19 months.
“There is absolutely no basketball value to anything happening tonight,” Auriemma said about a half-hour before the show. “Tonight serves one purpose only, and that’s for our students to get a chance to get in the building. Some of the kids who were freshman here last year, they came to UConn with all these great expectations, going to games, filling the place up, being all rowdy and having a great time — and they never got a chance to do that. So tonight is kind of for them, and for our players just to be kids. Sometimes it gets lost that they’re just a bunch of kids playing a kids game.”
With a block party on Jim Calhoun Way, the outside air smelled of fried food and pizza. The line to enter Gampel stretched down Hillside Road past the Field House. A few thousand students mingled even while a few thousand had taken their seats inside. Cheerleaders cheered. Jonathan the Husky was the center of attention outside before the sun set.
Then Auriemma and Hurley, meeting the media in the lobby of the adjacent Werth Champions Center, started talking about taking part in something that symbolized what was and what is to be.
“You hear the band, the noise coming from Gampel as you’re getting ready to walk over there, all the anticipation and excitement that fans and crowds bring to sports — that makes it special,” Hurley said. “It’s a big-time basketball school. They haven’t seen their Husky basketball in a long time so you knew you’d get a great turnout, the enthusiasm.”
A stage was erected at one end of the court, calling for the elimination of some seating sections, leaving capacity for the event at 8,570. There were probably 1,500 empty seats behind the stage. Every section with a view was packed.
The drum line started just before 7 p.m. Cheerleaders waved pom-poms. A countdown started on the scoreboard. The voices of Lauren Hill, Kanye West and others rang through the air. The ceiling, where 15 national championship banners hang, was dotted with colored light. Students stood.
Coaches were introduced first, then players. Most just waved casually while making their way from the stage to the court to music of their choice. Seniors Westbrook and Cole were asked to address the crowd and the called for teammates to join them.
Next? Playful awkwardness. “Jokey-jokes,” as Westbrook described.
With the women’s team on one side of the stage and the men’s on the other, she addressed Cole, saying, “Roses are red, violets are blue, my program’s got 11 championships, what ya’ll got, two?”
They went back and forth. Cole ribbed Westbrook about Aari McDonald and the Final Four loss to Arizona. Westbrook pointed out that the men lost their first-round NCAA Tournament game to Maryland. On and on they went, until Cole ended it.
“I hope this is a preview of what it’s going to look like this year,” Cole said of the crowd and to the crowd. “We have something special going on — both sides of the program. And we appreciate your support.”
UConn never emerged from the next transition.
The basket stanchion had been collapsed and reinstalled on the court numerous times without issue in preparation, UConn said. The event staff could not get set up the basket up when it mattered, though. There was about a 25-minute delay before improvisation began with dunks for the men and half-court play for the women. The crowd started to file out.
Auriemma had joked that the basketball played at these events is actually an insult to the sport. Hurley, while curious to see how his players would perform in front of a crowd, had told his players not to go anywhere near each other, to avoid injuries and fouls.
There were no injuries. There were no fouls. There was no basketball. So be it. That’s not what First Night is ever really about.