Twice last season, the XL Center in Hartford hosted a dual-admission basketball doubleheader that kicked off at 12 p.m. Like the rest of the general public, students who packed the student section needed two separate tickets in order to see both games. It’s reasonable to assume the Hartford twin bill will happen again this upcoming year, but what if I told you that there is a way to see both UConn basketball teams for the price of one…without leaving campus?
That double discount applies for one Friday event in mid-October (Likely Oct. 13) called First Night. Like Duke University’s Countdown to Craziness and the University of Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness, First Night officially introduces the team to the students. Occurring at the “Basketball Capital of the World,” both the men’s and women’s programs get introduced in the same evening, a major difference from the productions the previously mentioned blue-blood schools put on.
Writer’s Note: What you are about to read is by no means a perfect guide to the biggest UConn basketball event outside of any Big East home game. I predict that some changes will happen ahead of this year’s thrilling edition.
First Night has shades of a high school pep rally that takes place the day before the annual homecoming game. While UConn basketball does not have a homecoming contest (football does) and First Night highlights just one sport, the excitement about both teams could blow the roof off Gampel Pavilion. The men’s team enters the season as the defending national champions, having routed the competition during their title run by an average of 20 points. After not reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2007 last season, the women’s team is hungry for their 12th championship.
The student section for every game played at Gampel Pavilion is on the side closest to Hillside Drive and opposite where the Huskies score in the second half. Seats there will fill up fast, but people who do not claim a spot there will not be left out in the cold as no official student section exists for this event. With very few areas reserved for the players’ families and some special guests, the atmosphere becomes a sellout without most of the general public. That environment gradually gets louder once the band and cheer squads finish their fiery opening acts.
Recalling past high school pep rallies, two emcees introduced each varsity club and asked the captains some questions. UConn introduces both teams individually, working their way up from the freshmen to the seniors and graduate students before presenting the team captains. Dancing to their selected music, each player interacts with the front-row fans on their way down the ramp while cameras and phones shine on their faces like paparazzi on the red carpet.
Once every athlete gets their spotlight, both teams take the microphone and make some remarks ahead of the new season. Similar to how your high school principal did it at pep rallies (last comparison, I promise), a few players verbally discuss their excitement about the road ahead. Everything beyond talking about bringing home another national championship remains in the air, but this year, a special event is about as guaranteed to happen as an Alex Karaban buzzer-beating three.
Like they did in 2014, when both basketball programs won the national title in the same year, there will be a championship banner reveal at First Night. There has not been one since 2016, when the women’s team won their fourth in a row, so I am intrigued to see how the ceremony will work. Whether this happens before or after the coaches and players speak remains unknown, but I do know what will happen after the banner takes its rightful place in the rafters.
In years past, the players engaged in a series of contests similar to those seen at the NBA or WNBA All-Star Game Skills Challenge. Rather than having one basketball team compete against the other, the players are split into a “blue team” and a “white team” that are drafted beforehand. Those two teams first send out two pairs for the three-point challenge, with each competitor getting a minute to bury as many treys as they can. Once that first round finishes up, the tandem on one squad with the higher score faces the duo from the other tandem in the final round. After it stops raining triples, the attention turns toward the dunk contest, which featured Emeka Okafor, Khalid El-Amin, Renee Montgomery and Stefanie Dolson as celebrity judges last year.
Each of the two participants from both teams gets 60 seconds to complete their attempt. As soon as a player has successfully completed their dunk, the judges score the jam on a 1-10 scale for a maximum of 40 points. Andre Jackson may be gone as the Milwaukee Bucks selected him in the second round of the NBA Draft, but Ayanna Patterson can throw down the hammer. After not taking part in last year’s dunk contest because of an injury and not recording one last season, I fully expect the sophomore forward to rock the rim.
Once the dunk contest concludes and the final team points have been calculated, First Night officially ends. While this may seem like a lot, the entire event lasts almost an hour, leaving the door open for students to do other things that Friday evening. Add in the time spent waiting in line outside Gampel Pavilion, the street fair on Jim Calhoun Way and socializing with peers, and First Night becomes a preseason version of a UConn gameday experience.
Even though the event itself consumes less time than a Tuesday/Thursday class, the pregame festivities and palpable buzz around both programs will generate a lot of hype for First Night and make it feel as stimulating as a national championship watch party.