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UConn will miss its fans’ energy at Gampel Pavilion: ‘It’s going to feel like we’re scrimmaging’

Another reminder of the impact of COVID-19 on the 2020-21 college basketball season hit home on Monday for UConn.

Both the men’s and women’s teams will host games next month, but not in front of fans. The school announced that attendance at Gampel Pavilion will be limited initially to the families of student-athletes and coaches as Connecticut grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases.

For those on the court, the experience figures to be anything but normal.

“It’s going to feel like we’re scrimmaging,” UConn guard Evina Westbrook said this summer, when asked about the possibility of playing in an empty arena. “It’s just you, the other team and the refs. The beginning of the season you have closed scrimmages to kind of get a feel, and that’s how every game might be.”

Both teams’ fanbases are among the most fervent in the nation. The women averaged 9,527 fans between Gampel and the XL Center last season, which ranked fourth in the country. The men were a tick below that at 9,199 per game.

“That has always been one of our biggest strengths,” said women’s coach Geno Auriemma, whose team had won 98 straight home games before losing to Baylor in January. “Our crowds are great, our fans are loyal, they’re passionate whether it’s here or the XL Center. Teams in the conference or around the country, they knew if they came here … for the longest time, we were the standard.”

This year the Huskies will enjoy no such luxury. While the school said plans could be altered if COVID-19 conditions improve over the course of the season, nothing is guaranteed to change.

The men, back in the Big East for the first time since 2012-13, are slated to open their season on Nov. 25 against Central Connecticut State, which is coached by former Husky great Donyell Marshall.

The game is not finalized at this point, however, and like all scheduling for the 2020-21 season, is subject to change. The Huskies are expected to host Sacred Heart at some point, as well.

The UConn men are scheduled to begin Big East play against St. John’s at Gampel on Dec. 11. Under normal circumstances, the game would’ve likely been a sellout. The women will host Butler on Dec. 15.

“For me, our homecourt situation is so unique,” men’s coach Dan Hurley said. “To have the on-campus, 10,000-plus, intimate, fans on top of you, student section on top of you, mini-terrordome on campus … we’ve got one of the best fan bases in the country, and it’s one of the hardest places to play.”

Officials at UConn were hoping as little as a few weeks ago that about 1,500-2,000 fans (about 15-20 percent capacity) might be admitted to home games. But cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 have been on the rise of late, forcing Gov. Ned Lamont to roll back Connecticut’s reopening plan. As of Wednesday, the state’s positivity rate was at 4.2 percent.

“Safety obviously has to come first in this thing,” men’s assistant Tom Moore said on a Hearst Connecticut Media podcast. “The new reality in this pandemic is that so many of us have had to give up so many essential and non-essential things in our lives. This is just another one.

“My heart breaks for the diehard Connecticut basketball fans because the timing aligned perfectly, with us being in the third year of a rebuild and going into the Big East.”

Without a packed house cheering them on, the Huskies will now need to look elsewhere for a boost.

“It is going to be really quiet,” guard Christyn Williams said. “But during a tournament, momentum shifts are a thing. I don’t think it would necessarily be a bad thing if there are no fans. Our bench would be our energy source. It would be like competing, whose bench is louder?”

Dave Borges contributed to this story

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour

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