Big 'Night' for UConn basketball

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

STORRS, Conn. -- UConn celebrated a bit more than usual during its annual First Night event Friday, which traditionally marks the start of the new college basketball season.

The school dedicated a new $40 million basketball practice facility, the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center, which opened this month next door to Gampel Pavilion. And before introducing this year's teams to fans, last season's men's and women's NCAA championship banners were unveiled in front of a national television audience.

"We really wanted everybody in America to know that there are places where basketball is really important and there are places where basketball is great -- and then there is UConn,'' women's coach Geno Auriemma said.

Fans began lining up early Friday afternoon for First Night, which began with an autograph session that included every player from both teams. Nine-year-old Lucas Espinosa of Guilford was among those who met his heroes. He even got a fist bump from men's coach Kevin Ollie.

"It's like a dream,'' he said. "The best dream.''

More than 10,000 fans, most carrying large blinking foam light sticks, filled the arena for the light show, the music and, almost as an afterthought, a little basketball.

They went wild as former Huskies carried in 11 NCAA trophies and set them down on a table at center court. The cheering reached a crescendo when Auriemma and Ollie appeared on the arena's concourse and walked through the crowd with trophies 12 and 13.

It got even louder when the coverings were taken off both championship banners and the announcer declared UConn the "basketball capital of the world.'' It's the only school two win both titles in the same year, a feat the Huskies also accomplished in 2004.

"When you see both of them go up, the kids that go to school here, you just feel like you're in a special place,'' said NBA star Ray Allen, who played here during the 1990s. "It's a great time to want to be here and to continue to want to be here.''

The main event was a scrimmage with each team made up of current men and women's players -- one led by Ollie and the other by Auriemma. Team Geno won, 38-37. Things wrapped up with cannons filling the arena with confetti.

The First Night celebration used to be held on the first day teams were allowed to practice. But recent rule changes have led to staggered starts across the country. The UConn men's team has already held seven practices. The women began practicing Wednesday.

"We're going to celebrate tonight,'' Ollie said. "We had a hard practice and told the guys to lighten up, work on their dance moves and just enjoy it.''

Each team has its own practice court and locker room inside the new Werth Center, which also features a weight room, dining area, study space and a public Hall of Fame where the national championship trophies will be on display.

The entrances to the women's and men's sides of the building are marked by 3-story photos of Allen and former women's star Maya Moore.

Former coach Jim Calhoun did not attend the ceremony, though he was in the practice center earlier in the day.

The school continues to raise money for the building, the first on campus to be built entirely with private funds. Donors have so far put up $33.5 million, including $7 million from the family for which it is named.

Most of the Huskies' NBA alumni were absent from the list of donors.

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