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With newfound confidence in her knee, Evina Westbrook ready for big senior season

Westbrook admitted she wasn’t at 100 percent — physically, mentally or emotionally — for most of last season.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Evina Westbrook’s first two seasons at UConn couldn’t have been any different.

In her first year after transferring in from Tennessee, Westbrook underwent left knee surgery on June 4, 2019 and missed the entirety of summer workouts. That fall, her waiver to play immediately was denied and on New Year’s Eve, she underwent another knee surgery. In the midst of Westbrook’s rehab, UConn sent all students home at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left her alone on campus.

Things have been dramatically better since then. When Westbrook returned to Storrs ahead of her redshirt junior campaign, she did so as a different person on an almost completely remade team. The Huskies lost six players from the year prior and added six freshmen to the roster.

Westbrook, placed in an apartment with two of those freshmen — Nika Mühl and Autumn Chassion — set out to earn the respect of her teammates as the oldest player on the squad. It didn’t take long for her to accomplish that.

“We always joke about how Evina is like our mom in our pod,” Mühl said in August 2020. “She’s been taking very good care of us.”

Just like that, Momma E was born. The nickname quickly spread to the rest of the team and Westbrook gladly took on the role of team mom. Not only did she help the freshmen adjust to college life, she helped everyone through a difficult season in which the players couldn’t go anywhere besides their apartment or the gym for the most part.

At Christmas, Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa dressed up an elf and Santa Claus, respectively and on Valentine’s Day, Westbrook gave each of her teammates an oversized card, a balloon, stuffed animal and a t-shirt that featured a photo from each player’s Instagram with herself photoshopped in somewhere.

“Just seeing the smile on all their faces made my day,” Westbrook said at the time. “Mission accomplished.”

Westbrok had a good season on the court as well. She started all 30 games for UConn last year and averaged 9.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Her numbers don’t fully convey her impact, though.

All season long, Westbrook did whatever the Huskies needed from her on a given night. She scored at least 10 points 15 times, but recorded eight assists and seven rebounds with no points against St. John’s on Feb. 17. Westbrook set a career-high of 14 rebounds at DePaul and hit a pair of crucial 3-pointers in a big win over her former Tennessee squad.

She was a venerable Swiss Army knife for UConn and became one of the team’s most indispensable players.

What’s most impressive is that Westbrook did all that at less than 100 percent. During the preseason, she admitted her knee was still “day to day” and couldn’t always be a full participant in practice throughout the year.

Now, not only is Westbrook better physically, she finally has confidence in her knee.

“I feel like I have a clear head every time going into it,” she said prior to UConn’s first official practice. “Before I’d think about my knee. If I jump, I’m thinking about if I come down, if it’s going to give out on me. Now, I’m just out there playing and I think for me, that’s the biggest thing. I’m just going out there with a clear mind and playing how I used to play. Just thinking about the game instead of my knee.”

Westbrook’s coaches and teammates have already taken notice.

“Last year she was a little timid, mainly because of her knee,” Christyn Williams said. “This year, she’s been super aggressive and she’s been getting to the basket and knocking down shots. So I’m happy for her.”

“She’s not taking as many opportunities to step out and get herself back again,” Geno Auriemma said. “She needed a lot of breaks last year and that hasn’t been the case so far. And practice is two hours of basketball stuff. In a game, it’s not two hours of constant — you do get a lot of breaks. But right now she looks good. She looks good. She’s moving well and I’m happy with where she is.”

This isn’t a completely new development, though. Westbrook’s confidence in her knee began to return during the NCAA Tournament, during which she averaged 10.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists — including a near-triple double in the Sweet Sixteen with 17 points, 10 assists and 9 boards.

After seeing a small sample of what she could do at full health, Westbrook had to see what what happen over the course of an entire season. While the lure of entering the WNBA Draft proved tempting, she decided to come back for one more go-around at UConn.

“When I got to the tournament...I kind of just told myself, ‘Evina, if you’re able to play a year like this healthy...’ — mentally I was right, physically, emotionally, everything. It felt like I was being consistent throughout the whole tournament, except for the last game — that I would have a great year, too,’” Westbrook said.

Passing on the WNBA for the time being is also a motivational tool for Westbrook. Most mock drafts had her projected for the first round, maybe early second round, albeit in a weak draft class. If that’s where Westbrook would’ve been picked after playing an entire season at less than 100 percent, she’ll have a chance to send her stock to the moon with a big senior year.

“It’s time to take my game to another level,” she said. “Take this team to another level.”

The professional ranks can wait, though. As much as Westbrook hopes to one day play in the WNBA, she has unfinished business at UConn. The Huskies came up short of winning a national championship last season after getting bounced by Arizona in the national semifinal, and Westbrook doesn’t intend to leave Storrs empty-handed.

“I wanted a ring,” she said. “We definitely have all the pieces (to win a national championship. Now, it’s just placing them in the right spot.”