UConn men, women delighted to play before First Night fans

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Oct. 16—STORRS — The subject of walk-out music came up shortly before First Night festivities began Friday at a nearly full Gampel Pavilion.

UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma declined to make a choice when recently asked by his players.

"They asked me the other day, 'What song are you walking out to?' So, what am I, Mariano Rivera?," Auriemma said. "He deserves a song to walkout to. Everybody else, I'm not sure."

Auriemma once joked to his wife that maybe he should walk out to Pomp and Circumstance.

First Night returned after being canceled last year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The student-only crowd arrived early and packed Gampel Pavilion, with roughly 8,000 fans in attendance. They roared before, during and after player introductions.

It was a welcome sound and sight and capped off a busy day on campus during which President Joe Biden visited.

Men's coach Dan Hurley soaked in the atmosphere outside Gampel Pavilion before entering the building. Students attended a block party on Jim Calhoun Way and began to line up hours before player introductions.

"That was awesome," Hurley said. "To hear the band, the noise coming from Gampel when you walk over there and the anticipation and the excitement the fans bring, and the crowds bring to sports is what makes it special.

"... This is a big-time basketball school and they haven't seen their Husky basketball in a long time, so you knew you'd get a great turnout."

First Night was all about the players.

Hurley and Auriemma sat back and just let the kids have fun and tried to resist the urge to go into full-coach mode.

"I'll say right now that this is fun and this is great," Hurley said before festivities began. "I'll bring up something that happened tomorrow in practice even though I'm not really supposed to hold anything that happens tonight against them."

With both teams' season opener less than a month away, First Night gave the players a chance to have a good time in front of a large, supportive and loud crowd for the first time since pre-pandemic days.

In a bit of a hiccup, First Night intrasquad scrimmages were shifted to four-on-four halfcourt when UConn officials had trouble setting up the basket support at one end of the court. Fans began to head to the exits and the event ended shortly after that.

Not that it really mattered.

Hurley preferred an NBA all-star game type vibe after a long stretch of grueling practices.

"We practice really, really hard and our practices are super physical," Hurley said. "And we're a little bit banged up because we've been going so hard for so long."

Fifth-year senior Tyler Polley and freshman Rahsool Diggins sat out action due to injuries. Polley (ankle) is expected to be sidelined for about a week, Diggins (knee) a week and a half.

Expectations for this upcoming season are high for both teams.

With megastar Paige Bueckers leading the way, the women's team will enter the season in its traditional role as a strong contender to win the national championship.

In his fourth season, Hurley has his deepest and most talented roster in his tenure in Storrs coming off the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2016.

"For me, outside expectations don't really bother me because mine are so high and they have always been," Hurley said. "Personally, for me, I just have a lot more confidence because we learned how to win, we played at the top of the league and we got an (NCAA) at-large (bid) and got back into the mix in March. And we put a guy (James Bouknight) in the (NBA draft) lottery.

"We had a good year minus the way the season ended for us. When you get over the hump, you have confidence where you're at."

The UConn men won't have an exhibition game before the regular season Nov. 9 against Central Connecticut at Gampel Pavilion. Instead, the Huskies will play two closed door scrimmages, including one against Harvard on Oct. 23.

The UConn women host Fort Hays State in an exhibition on Nov. 7 in Storrs before opening against Arkansas on Nov. 14 at the XL Center in Hartford.

So there's still time for both coaches to figure some things out.

"I've had teams that after the first week of practice, I'm like, 'Man, it's going to be really hard to beat us,'" Auriemma said. "This year, I think we're really good. But I worry, do I have the right things set up for them to be their best, because we are so young minus the three seniors."

g.keefe@theday.com

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