15 hours after they went live on Oct. 3, tickets for First Night at the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion officially sold out. If thousands of individuals ordering tickets at the speed of sound did not display the fans’ excitement, then First Night itself highlighted the hype around both UConn basketball programs.
Friday’s festivities marked the first time since 2016 that the landmark preseason event featured a defending national champion, when the women’s team won their fourth consecutive title. In what he considers a necessary exercise, head coach Geno Auriemma wanted to admire the silliness of his serious team ahead of their chase for national title No. 12.
“They get a kick out of performing, and this is just a performance for them,” Auriemma explained prior to First Night. “They get to act silly and they get to experience the adulation of the crowd.”
Each of the 28 players between both programs exerted their pent-up energy, displaying their prowess on a new basketball court. After it was replaced over the summer, the new hardwood floor features the campus’ distinction as the “Basketball Capital of the World,” donning the sideline closest to the team benches. With First Night occurring on Friday the 13th, it made perfect sense to roll out another nickname: “College Basketball’s Worst Nightmare.”
“I am creative,” national champion head coach Dan Hurley commented about the horror-based moniker. “I suggested to the marketing team to try and make it a Halloween theme on some of the social stuff.”
As the clock inched toward 7 p.m., hype man Conor Geary familiarized new students with the chants shouted during every basketball game. Once the UConn Drumline finished their fiery opening act, both basketball programs took center stage.
Instead of climbing stairs, the players and the coaching staff strolled up a ramp to a stage that allowed them to see a sea of fans from three different sides. While the men’s coaching staff trotted to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and the women’s staff got numerous tunes, the players chose what beats blasted on the speakers during their on-stage appearances.
Caroline Ducharme walked out to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline again; Hassan Diarra made everyone lose their mind to “SkeeYee” by Sexyy Red; Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer nabbed Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” a fit for the event’s spooky theme. But between the electric dance moves and the enticing song choices, no player received a louder roar of applause than redshirt junior Paige Bueckers.
With no special guest emcee in attendance and the squads drafted by the captains off the court, both teams went right into a series of thrilling skills challenges.
Hot shot challenge
The first of three evening events, two duos from both teams had one minute to earn a varying number of points from four different areas. Just like any spot shot challenge during a UConn basketball game, the most points came from half-court shots.
Diarra did just that, burying a buzzer-beating heave that gave his and White Team captain Aaliyah Edwards’ duo 50 points. Only fellow team captain Alex Karaban, who also drained a half-court shot, and Nika Mühl exceeded that number with 63. Snatching a convincing 105-65 win, the White Team earned the first point in the best-of-three series.
Impromptu dunk challenge
Unlike past editions, this year’s First Night did not feature the popular dunk contest. With the second event getting set up, Virginia natives Solo Ball and Jayden Ross introduced themselves to UConn Nation in an unofficial dunk duel. Ball tossed a lob off the board and threw down the one-handed hammer while Ross spun around in the air and finished the slam.
Skills challenge relay
In this new competition, five players from each team clashed in a three-part skills course where the first team to have all five of their athletes complete every skill would earn a point. Tasks included sinking a corner three, dribbling around a series of cones, catching a pass off a pass back assist net and making a basket with their non-dominant hand.
Diarra’s struggles from beyond the arc as the first leg did the White Team in from the beginning. By the time the senior guard converted his opposite-hand shot, the Blue Team stood one step ahead, completing the relay before the White Team’s fifth player started.
Tied at one after two competitions, the winner of the three-point contest would determine which squad earned bragging rights. Spencer’s nine triples on 12 shots highlighted the Blue Teams’ performance as his and Ducharme’s 17 total buckets stood strong against Tristen Newton and Ice Brady’s 14. Ross and Qadence Samuels matched that number for the White Team, but the lethal combination of Karaban and Azzi Fudd made 15 treys to punch their ticket to the finals.
Spencer complemented Ducharme’s start in the winner-takes-all round, but Fudd and Karaban saw the Blue Team duo’s 14 points as a minor obstacle. The two sharpshooters wrapped up the activities with 18 points, with the latter making his last two deep shots, and clinched the White Team’s second straight First Night victory 2-1.
All 14 team members touched a silver trophy and posed for a picture afterward, but while most fans departed, two players expressed closing remarks. Bueckers went first, expressing her eagerness to step back on the court after missing last season with a torn ACL.
“I missed you tremendously.”
Seconds later, Donovan Clingan plainly stated the men’s team’s goals for the season.
“We are back in the mix to go get No. 6.”
Both basketball programs begin their 2023-24 campaigns in early November. The men’s team’s title defense starts against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks on Nov. 6, when their fifth national championship banner ascends to the Gampel Pavilion rafters. Two days later, on Nov. 8, the women’s team hosts the Dayton Flyers at the XL Center in Hartford.
Fans who did not attend First Night can watch it on demand via UConn Athletics’ YouTube page.