UConnReport - Evina Westbrook finally feels like a basketball player at UConn
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Evina Westbrook finally feels like a basketball player at UConn

At some point last season, Evina Westbrook stopped feeling like a basketball player. A year that began with the hope of suiting up for the Huskies after transferring from Tennessee ended with her alone on campus in a monotonous cycle of rehab.

Westbrook’s time at UConn got off to a tough start from the beginning. Almost immediately after arriving on campus, she underwent knee surgery that kept her out for the entire summer. Then, shortly before the start of the regular season, the NCAA denied her waiver request to play immediately after transferring.

It was a tough pill for Westbrook to swallow, one that she admitted that she had trouble coping with.

“I struggled at first, being the competitor that I am, not wanting to sit out but over time, really embracing that role,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t able to play last year, I still had to be a great teammate to my teammates off the court.”

At the very least, Westbrook could still practice, even though she couldn’t play in games or travel on road trips. But that only lasted until New Years’ Eve, when the second surgery officially relegated her to spectator status for the remainder of the year. Just like after the waiver denial, Westbrook needed time to process the news on her own. But once she did – “there’s no looking back.”

“It was just positivity from there on out and I think what really helped me through was my team last year, just still keeping me involved,” Westbrook said. “When you’re on the bench so much and not able to be in practice and kind of just watching, you kind of don’t feel like you’re part of the team but they really helped me (by) involving me in everything.”

The biggest hit came in March when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, ending UConn’s season early and shutting down the campus. All the Huskies went home – except for Westbrook, who stayed on campus for rehab. For a while, only she and Akok Akok, a men’s basketball player recovering from an injury of his own, were on campus.

“My day consisted of waking up, eating breakfast, coming to rehab, then going home,” Westbrook said of her time on campus alone. “Luckily, The Last Dance (the docuseries about Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls) was on so I had that every Sunday.”

Westbrook’s first year didn’t go the way she imagined it would back when she committed. But looking back, she realized her time on the sideline gave a new outlook that she wouldn’t have otherwise.

“I kind of got a coach’s perspective. When Coach is getting on the team, when you’re on the court you don’t feel like you’re doing certain things,” she said. “So I got to get a little bit of a coach’s perspective which I think will really help to my advantage because if Coach says something, even if I might not feel like it, that’s probably what you’re doing.”

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Westbrook still disagrees with the NCAA’s decision to reject her waiver, though she declined to go into the still-murky details of what happened at Tennessee. But she’s at peace with it and now sees the opportunity that it ultimately afforded her.

“Personally, I feel like they didn’t understand what was really going on, which is okay,” she said. “Moving past that, I really don’t talk about Tennessee anymore ... But it was kind of a blessing in disguise, I was able to get healthy. I was able to get my knee situated and everything like that. At the end of the day, it’s really okay.”

Now, Westbrook is back for her second go-around. Though she’s never even suited up for the Huskies, the way she handled all the adversity that came in her direction impressed Auriemma, so much so that he made her a captain along with fellow juniors Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams.

“I felt bad for her that she had to sit out but she handled it great. She worked her butt off when the surgery happened. I mean she took it all in stride. She did her rehab, she stayed here. She was the only one on campus for the longest time,” he said. “That’s not easy. (She) never complained, never said a word, just worked and worked and worked.”

Westbrook admitted she still isn’t 100 percent and is still “day by day.” But most importantly to her, she’s back on the court where she belongs after spending so much on the sidelines.

“I had my first pickup game when I was home since December,” she said. “That felt crazy playing in that but crazy in a good way, like ‘Okay, I’m really just getting back into what I’m supposed to be doing.’ I felt like I’m a basketball player again and it felt great.”