How UConn senior guard Evina Westbrook elevated her game mixing it up with men in the Portland Pro Am Summer League

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When UConn women’s basketball players are back home in the offseason after the Huskies’ summer session, they’re always looking for ways to stay sharp. Some compete with USA Basketball. Others, like Aaliyah Edwards this year, even go to the Olympics. And then there’s players like Evina Westbrook and Christyn Williams, who take a different route altogether — playing with and against men.

Westbrook, redshirt senior guard from Salem, Oregon, played exclusively with and against men until she entered high school, so it was a no-brainer for her to join the Portland Pro Am Summer League this summer where . she became the first woman to play in the league.

“I had three different teams ask me ‘come play with us, come play with us,’” Westbrook said Friday. “I picked my little home team that I grew up playing against, so played with them. It was super cool experience, something I’ll remember forever.”

The league featured a mix of players with collegiate and pro experience. Westbrook’s teammates on ICP Portland included players from the University of Washington, Oregon, Michigan and Portland State. NBA players Mike James (Brooklyn Nets) and Payton Pritchard (Boston Celtics) appeared on other teams.

Senior guard Williams spent part of the summer recovering from left elbow surgery, but when she was able to, she took on guys back home in Little Rock, Arkansas more casually in 1-on-1.

Playing against guys is nothing new for the Huskies. The program has used male practice players for decades. After a strong end to her junior season where she emerged as a lethal two-way threat, Williams is hoping going up against guys will build upon that promising foundation, particularly on the defensive end.

“Guys are more physical, stronger, quicker, so just playing [1-on-1], it’s really helped me do that,” Williams said. “It’s more difficult from a physical standpoint to keep them in front of us or to play against them. So if you can be successful against them, then when it comes to girls, things will be a lot easier.”

Westbrook, too, found that her game shined in ways that male players don’t typically demonstrate.

“[Women], we know the game more,” Westbrook said. “Guys are kind of just out there, just trying to break a man down, play 1-on-1, look real smooth. Coach [Geno Auriemma] talks about that as well. We play the game of basketball, really play the game. So when I’m making passes out there, [people say], ‘oh my gosh, how do you see that?’ Because I’m playing the game, I’m not playing to just play 1-on-1.”

Williams and Westbrook enter the preseason hoping to guide the Huskies to the program’s first national title since 2016. This UConn team has more depth than in previous years, but as senior leaders on an underclassmen-heavy team, the pair will be expected to step up their level of play.

Luckily for both, things seem to be starting off on the right foot, and their summer experiences have a lot to do with that.

“I just proved to myself that I can play with and against anyone,” Westbrook said. “I knew that growing up, but it’s also good to have reminder and to feel that. It was amazing.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com

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