When Evina Westbrook first started watching basketball growing up, she told her older brother LJ that one day, she was going to play at UConn.
Evina was true to her word, though she took more of a roundabout route than she’d originally envisioned, starting her collegiate career at Tennessee before transferring to Storrs after her sophomore year. Still, before arriving in Connecticut, Evina echoed the same goal she once articulated as a kid: “‘I just want to go there and help them win a national championship,’” LJ recalls.
A denied transfer waiver requiring her to sit out a season, two knee surgeries in six months and a global pandemic weren’t enough to deter Westbrook from helping a freshman-heavy team advance to the program’s 13th-straight Final Four in her first season suiting up for the Huskies. Being at UConn and playing on the sport’s biggest stage, Westbrook said prior to the Final Four, was a dream come true, “almost surreal.”
Her dream wasn’t entirely fulfilled, with UConn falling to Arizona in the national semifinals. That could change next season if Westbrook, whose toughness and will to win has long stood out, has anything to say about it. Two days after UConn’s season concluded, she announced her decision to stay at UConn for her redshirt senior year rather than to declare for the WNBA draft with a two-word Instagram post: “unfinished business.”
“She always tries to come through on what she tells me,” LJ said, “so I already believe it’s going to happen.”
Growing up, there was no challenge too insurmountable for Evina on the basketball court. She loved playing 1-on-1 against LJ, four years her senior. He’d talk trash and never let her win, though a young Evina always thought she could beat him.
Occasionally she’d come into the house crying when she’d lose, but her parents, James and Eva, told her to get back out there — “You have to get the W on your own,” Eva would tell her. “No one is going to give it to you.”
LJ and Evina spent countless hours after school and in the summer at their local gym in Salem, Ore. When LJ was in high school and played pickup with college players, Evina, then in middle school, wanted in. It took some convincing, but they finally let her play. She’d call out “screen right” and “screen left,” and hated to get beat on defense so much, LJ said, that before she learned how to keep guys in front of her, she’d rather foul them than let them score.
LJ estimates by the time Evina was a freshman or sophomore in high school, she was running the open gyms, even alongside college players.
“She just wanted to make sure she was pulling her weight” Eva said, “and at the end of the day, she was just tougher.”
Evina only played with guys until she entered high school, where she finally switched to joined the Nike EYBL Cal Stars program. That may have fortified her toughness, but she has always had an edge and desire to get better. LJ jokes that she was the one who’d beat him up when they were younger. Some days LJ just wanted to play video games at home, and it was Evina who’d push him to go to the gym. As LJ went on to play collegiately and now professionally with The Basketball League, Evina always craved feedback from him, and so he calls her after every game to go over the good, the bad and the ugly from her performance.
Even off the court, Evina’s the one who runs the Westbrook household, Eva and LJ said. Yet she’s always had a nurturing side: She practically serves as a third parent to her brother Tko, who’s nine years younger than her. She keeps up with his academic progress and sports activities from across the country and has a “superhuman power,” Eva says, to push through any impediments in front of her if she knows Tko is watching.
‘I knew I could get it done’
Westbrook may have committed to UConn with lofty goals of helping guide the Huskies to a championship, but it took 19 months after her decision to finally take the court for the Huskies. The NCAA denied Westbrook immediate eligibility for the 2019-20 season, and once she was forced to sit out, she opted to undergo another surgery in December, her second in six months, in hopes of fixing some knee issues. She watched from afar as the Huskies went 29-3 prior to the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, and after campus cleared out early in the pandemic she stayed back for a few months to complete her rehab. Before the pandemic, Eva says, there were nights when Evina hobbled over to the gym in crutches, envisioning all that she could one day do in white and national flag blue.
“She was obviously hurt and was upset by it,” LJ said. “But she told me, ‘I think this is what I needed to kind of reset, refocus, get myself ready for what’s coming. Because God gives his hardest challenges to his strongest warriors.’”
“I think that Coach and the staff wouldn’t have brought me here if they didn’t think I was built for it and capable,” Evina reflected before the Final Four. “Knowing that they brought me here, and ‘E, we trust you to lead this team,’ I knew I could get it done.”
It took some time for her to find her groove after such a long absence, but when Westbrook finally took the court for the 2020-21 season as a redshirt junior, she emerged as one of UConn’s more dependable, well-rounded players. She was one of two players to play in every game, averaging over 30 minutes on the court. She was second in assists and steals, third in rebounding and fifth in scoring. She stepped up in some of UConn’s biggest matchups, hitting clutch 3s against her former team at Tennessee, dropping 19 points in a loss to Arkansas and falling one rebound shy of a triple-double in the Sweet 16 against Iowa. “She was a central part of why we were good,” Geno Auriemma said, “and at times, why we were great.”
“The end goal was for her to not just be on the team, but be able to contribute in every way, or whatever means necessary for this team to win,” Eva said. “And that’s really what she wants. She just wants to win.”
Similar to the older sister relationship she has with Tko, she became a team leader who embraced her role of taking seven freshmen under her wing so effectively that Paige Bueckers once called her the “heart and soul” of the team.
“Having their trust and their belief in me makes all the adversity that I went through in the past worth it,” Westbrook said.
In early April, Westbrook and Bueckers sat in a nondescript room in the Alamodome, completely desolate, speaking to media via Zoom following UConn’s 69-59 Final Four loss to Arizona. They were outplayed, out-toughed by a gritty Wildcats team, in Westbrook’s words “embarrassed, disappointed in ourselves for not playing UConn basketball.” Westbrook didn’t have one of her better games, finishing with only 10 points as the Huskies’ offense stalled.
“Everything was for the main goal of coming back with a national championship,” Westbrook said. “To leave empty handed is ... I can’t even describe this feeling.”
Westbrook spoke of “we” needing to get back into the gym and learn from the loss. It wasn’t apparent at the time whether that “we” would include Westbrook. Having turned 22 the previous fall, she was eligible for the 2021 WNBA draft and had 48 hours after the game to opt into the draft pool. In the wake of the loss, she declined to provide any insight into her future.
People texted LJ immediately after the game that Evina needed to leave for the league. ESPN’s mock draft at the time had her getting drafted as high as No. 5 overall.
But LJ knows his sister.
“As soon as buzzer went off, [I thought] ‘there’s no way she enters the draft,’” LJ said. “‘She’s going to go right back.’”
With a full season under her belt since her redshirt season and surgeries, Auriemma needs Westbrook to be steady and dependable, and with the Arizona loss fresh on the mind, he wants leaders who step up when the team needs it most. “The real task going forward is, can you lead when you’re struggling and can you understand when we as a team are struggling and what does the team need from you,” the coach said. That’ll be even more important next season with the team composed of nine freshmen and sophomores.
“If [the young kids are] on a roller coaster a little bit, we can’t have you on a roller coaster,” Auriemma said. “You need to be somebody that we can count on every single minute of every day.”
Auriemma is asking for more from Westbrook for UConn to win a national championship. But that’s more than OK in her mind.
She’ll do whatever it takes to complete her unfinished business.
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