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‘It becomes very Groundhog Day’: UConn women’s basketball’s experience through COVID-19

The Huskies do what they can to break up the tedious day-to-day life under COVID-19 restrictions and precautions.

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

Evina Westbrook had big Valentine’s Day plans for her teammates. Not only did she have grand ideas for the day — she put together gifts for everyone that were large in size as well.

She gave each of her teammates a card — “a big card, like one of the jumbo cards,” Westbrook said — along with a balloon, a stuffed animal and a t-shirt that featured a photo from each player’s Instagram with herself photoshopped in somewhere.

“I had help from a lot of our people who work with us upstairs, just making sure I had all my ideas together,” she said. “I’d been planning this for about two weeks now.”

“Just seeing the smile on all their faces made my day,” Westbrook added later. “Mission accomplished.”

Aside from early enrollee Saylor Poffenbarger, the entire team had been on campus non-stop since late July and they couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. That was especially difficult for the freshmen who were away for the holidays for the first time. Westbrook wanted to do something special for everyone to make up for it.

“We know the holidays are especially a little bit more emotional, just not being able to be home with their families and stuff, especially Christmas and Thanksgiving,” she said. “[I was] just trying to give them a little bit extra love.”

Not only was it a thoughtful gift from Westbrook, who’s affectionately known as the “team mom,” it was also a welcome break from the day-to-day monotony for the Huskies. Because of the pandemic, the players can’t go anywhere besides their apartments and the Werth Champions Center. There isn’t much variation in their lives at the moment.

“Wake up, go to practice, do school and then repeat,” Paige Bueckers said.

The players take online classes as well, so they don’t get to walk around campus either. For the older players like Westbrook, who’s in her fourth year of school, they remember what things used to be like. The freshmen don’t know any different, so once life returns to normal, they’ll be in for a rude awakening.

“I told them ‘It’s gonna hit you out when you’re gonna have to get up, go to class, then come back, go to weights, then go back to class, then come back to practice,” she said. “They’re like ‘Oh, no, we didn’t —’ like, yeah, this is not real life as of now.”

In October, Geno Auriemma said one of the few positives of the situation was that his players never wanted to leave the gym because “they have nothing to do.” While that still partially holds true four months later, the players’ only two options are either being in the gym or being back in their apartments. They have nowhere else to get away, which is a problem in the coach’s eyes.

“Getting to the gym is kind of a refuge. But then you need a refuge from the refuge,” Auriemma said. “Where do you go? You go back to the same thing over and over and over and over again. It becomes very Groundhog Day. You get up in the morning, you do this, go home. Next day get up, do this. Nothing changes ... Over a period of time, I think that’s taken its toll.”

Auriemma does his best to keep the basketball court a “fun place” to come to each day but admitted that isn’t always possible. Westbrook takes it upon herself to spice things up — such as surprise Valentine’s Day presents — but said credited the entire team with helping to cure the monotony.

“I think we’ve really gotten into a good flow and a good rhythm with each other,” she said. “There’s no hesitation in our group chat when someone is bored like ‘Hey, where’s everybody at? What you doing? I’m coming to your room.’ All that type of stuff so we try to keep each other entertained as much as possible.”

Ultimately, Westbrook feels her biggest contribution to the team is what she does off the court rather than on it. In that sense, her Valentine’s Day surprise might’ve just been her best performance of the season.

“I generally feel like that’s one of my main jobs of this team,” Westbrook said of her leadership. “I got you. Even though you’re away from home, this is your home too. So [I] just make sure they feel loved and they feel that embracement, that family type of nurture and a mother-like love. For me and just overall with the team, I think it makes them feel good and then knowing that they feel good makes me feel good as well.”