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UConn WBB Weekly: The pandemic experience at Gampel Pavilion

A glimpse of what UConn games are like in the arena this season.

NCAA Womens Basketball: South Carolina at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the UConn WBB Weekly, a recap of everything that happened in the world of UConn women’s basketball over the past week.

The Weekly is a newsletter! Subscribe to get it in your inbox every Thursday at 7 a.m. before it hits the site.

Top Links

From The UConn Blog and Storrs Central:

Marquette coverage

South Carolina coverage:

Seton Hall coverage

Last week’s Weekly:

Elsewhere

Headlines

  • Geno Auriemma got his COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday.
  • Anna Makurat is “getting closer” to a return from her lower right leg injury but Auriemma still doesn’t expect to have her back for at least the next two weeks.
  • UConn-South Carolina averaged 461,000 viewers on Monday, the most-watch women’s basketball game ever on FS1.
  • Paige Bueckers, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams were named to the Naismith Trophy midseason list which included 30 total players.

An inside look at Gampel Pavilion during the COVID season

The UConn Blog is lucky enough to be one of a limited number of media outlets granted access to Gampel Pavilion this season. Since fans aren’t allowed into games, we decided to give you a glimpse of what it’s like to experience UConn women’s basketball games live this year.

On Monday, Storrs was noticeably quiet. Driving up to Gampel Pavilion, there were few students to be spotted. The normally bustling campus felt empty — like it was winter or summer break — despite the spring semester already in full swing.

Adding to the eeriness, UConn women’s basketball was just under an hour away from tipping off against No. 1 South Carolina, yet it would’ve been almost impossible to tell.

In normal times, basketball game days are different. The center of campus transforms as people start lining up outside the doors of the arena hours before the game. TV stations are broadcasting from across the street. Traffic picks up to a near standstill on those roads and the main outlets into campus.

Which is what made Monday night all the more strange. With only friends and family allowed in as fans along with a limited number of media seats, that buzz was nowhere to be found. The streets and sidewalks were nearly deserted and there were almost no signs that one of the biggest women’s basketball games of the year was about to go down.

There were no signs any game was happening inside Gampel Pavilion until I started to walk up towards the north entrance and heard the music pulsating out.

Some things don’t change, though. Before I could go inside, I still needed to pass through a metal detector and then a security guard checks temperatures. Instead of walking straight through with a media pass, there’s a check-in station.

Media seating is confined to section 12 with no access to the hallways underneath, where a workspace is typically set up. Two people are seated on either end of each table with large, plexiglass dividers between each row.

Initially, it doesn’t feel that strange to be inside without any fans — until I look out toward the court. The entire layout of Gampel Pavilion has been changed to accommodate the necessary health and safety measures.

The stands on the near-side of the court (from the broadcast perspective) are folded in to allow the benches — normally on the opposite sideline — to spread out the seating. Giant jugs of hand sanitizer are mounted on either of the benches.

Flanking the cameras on the concourse — an area normally flooded by fans — are long tables where the broadcasters and operation staffers sit.

Elsewhere, large tarps cover the bottom half of the sections along the sideline on the other side while cardboard cut-outs of fans, dogs, celebrities, and former players fill nearly all the seats in the lower bowl. The limited friends and family in attendance sit among the cut-outs.

A look at the layout of Gampel Pavilion this season.
Daniel Connolly

While some games have seen few player and coach guests — I counted 16 at an earlier game — the matchup with South Carolina brought out the largest crowd of the season, including 2021 signee Caroline Ducharme and her family and both Evina Westbrook’s and Paige Bueckers’ families.

The lack of a full house becomes more noticeable as tip-off approaches. When the team runs out onto the court from the locker room, the speakers blare the fight song instead of the pep band, creating a more hollow and tinny sound.

On some days, Gampel’s roof makes sounds you would never notice with even a small crowd. When snow slides off the silver dome, it sounds like the roof is collapsing in on itself. The same goes for windy days.

The reading of the starting lineups come with far less pizazz and excitement as well, even with a former player presenting UConn’s starting five. The musical accompaniment drowns out any noise from the limited people in attendance, so Paige Bueckers or Geno Auriemma don’t get the loud cheers they would normally.

As the teams take the court for the tip, “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble”/”Are You Ready for This?” plays, and the lack of 10,000 fans clapping in unison really becomes clear.

During some of the inconsequential Big East games, it’s easy to become enthralled in the action and forget about how bizarre this all is for a few moments. That was nearly impossible against South Carolina, though.

In the opening minutes, UConn made a few big steals that normally would’ve elicited ear-drum bursting cheers from the crowd. Instead, we just hear muted cheers from the UConn bench.

It’s easy to hear chatter from the court and sidelines, though it’s mostly inaudible from the second level. The exception to that is Auriemma. The angrier he gets, the easier it is to understand him. On Wednesday night, we could hear Geno yelling “E! E!” after an Evina Westbrook turnover.

As the game stretched on the momentum-swinging plays piled up, the crowd noise grew louder. It peaked after Bueckers’ incredible game-clinching 3-pointer when the crowd let out a dull roar.

Almost immediately after the game ends, the music cuts off and Gampel quickly becomes silent. You can hear the television and radio announcers along with the ops crew setting up the court for the volleyball team. After that, all that’s left is the hum of the air vents.

It’s an overwhelmingly bizarre experience to be at Gampel with no crowd but at the same time, it’s incredible how quickly it becomes a new normal. As I wrote this, I remembered the contests and promotions that are usually held during timeouts — something I had completely forgotten about. There are a lot of things about “normal” games that would be easy to remember is missing.


Best of social media

Stef Dolson’s reaction to the sequence at the end of regulation against South Carolina is gold:

As is the team’s postgame reaction:

If you thought Paige Bueckers’ 3-pointer against South Carolina looked familiar:

Nice tribute to Renee Montgomery:

Party like it’s 2016:

Quotables

Geno on the importance of role players: “People make comments like ‘She’ll never be anything but a role player,’ like that’s some kind of disease or something. ‘She’ll never be anything but a role player.’ Yeah? Good. I’d like to see what a concert would sound like if the guy who’s supposed to bring Billy Joel’s piano out doesn’t bring it out. Yeah, he’s just a role player. Well, guess what? Everybody’s role is really, really important and you just gotta play it to the best of your ability. So, if you’re going to be a role player, then you gotta be, like we say, a star in your role, whatever that is.”

AP Poll

  1. South Carolina (+1)
  2. UConn (+1)
  3. Louisville (-2)
  4. NC State (—)
  5. Stanford (+1)

Notables:

  • As long as the Huskies don’t blow it against Georgetown on Friday, they should be the No. 1 team in the country once the new AP Poll comes out Monday.
  • Tennessee is up to No. 16.
  • Arkansas fell two spots to No. 18.
  • DePaul also dropped two spots to No. 22.