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Rich Elliott: Silence 'deafening' in pregame moment to honor Newtown victims

Updated 5:18 pm, Wednesday, December 26, 2012
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WEST HARTFORD -- One by one, members of the Newtown Youth Girls' Basketball Association made their way onto the court at Chase Family Arena on Saturday afternoon. It had been eight days since 26 people, including 20 children ages 6 and 7, were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The Newtown girls nestled next to the players from UConn and Hartford for a pregame ceremony to honor the fallen. Some held green signs that read "We are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love." Others held teddy bears during an emotional moment of silence that featured 26 single rings of a bell.

Once the ceremony was over, a girl standing next to UConn All-America guard Bria Hartley turned to her without speaking and handed her the sign she was holding. The two exchanged a hug before walking off the court.

It was heart-wrenching to watch the kids participate.

"This was one of the more emotional pregames that I've ever been involved in,'' said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, whose team was also part of a pregame ceremony devoted to the Sandy Hook victims Wednesday night at the XL Center before the Huskies played Oakland.

"One of the little kids handed me a note for (assistant coach) Shea (Ralph), (assistant coach) Marisa (Moseley), (associate head coach) Chris (Dailey) and myself. She wrote about how she was a student at the school and she was there when it happened. She thanked us for everything and said how she was looking forward to being at the game (Saturday). It was our first contact with the kids that were actually a part of it.

"The moment of silence was deafening.''

Following UConn's 102-45 victory, Hartley showed exactly how much this day meant to her by walking into the interview room clutching two teddy bears that the guests from the Newtown Youth Girls' Basketball Association had given to the players.

The Huskies are perceived as heroes by so many people, both young and old. But Saturday, the real heroes were the young, innocent girls holding the signs and the teddy bears. No one should have to endure the horror that they have in the past week, especially at such a young age.

"Kids that young, for something to happen to them, and they had their whole lives ahead of them, it's really tragic," Hartley said. "And it's hard to think about. A lot of these kids, we know they look up to us and they like watching us. So we want to put on the kind of performance that they'll enjoy, and maybe some day their dream of playing basketball at a place like Connecticut will come true."

In all, there were about 90 kids from the Newtown Youth Girls' Basketball Association among the sellout crowd of 3,508. Chris Petersen, a former baseball player at Hartford who lives a half-mile from Sandy Hook Elementary School, coordinated the event with Hawks' baseball coach Justin Blood.

Petersen had four of his five children on hand. Twins Jack and Kate Peterson and stepson Jake Mailloux all attend Sandy Hook Elementary.

It was a day to get away from all of the sadness. It was a day to put a smile on the faces of some youngsters, if only for a brief time.

"We've been getting so much stuff from everybody that we decided to give Newtown shirts to the players and teddy bears to the players," Petersen said. "The girls wanted them to know that they were OK. For something that was organized two days ago, it was pretty cool. It meant more to these kids. You could see their faces. They were just happy."

Having the girls be a part of this day was special for Hartford coach and former UConn All-American Jennifer Rizzotti, too. A mother of two sons, ages 7 and 4, and having spent her childhood in New Fairfield, which is a few miles west of Newtown, she began to cry when discussing the events of the day following the game.

"We wanted to honor to them," Rizzotti said. "It's hard not to think about that and to have to talk to my second-grader about what happened. It's something that I probably cry about every day since it happened. It doesn't go away easily. I don't know if our players can feel the same way that a parent does, but they do feel. They were kids once so they know how tough this is. It doesn't mean you stop living your life, but you have to take that moment to reflect on what matters the most."

Judging by the postgame reactions of Hartley, Kelly Faris and former Fairfield Warde star Daphne Elliott of Hartford, the moment shared with the Newtown Youth Girls' Basketball Association will be one that they will not soon forget.

"It was something that really was kind of emotional for us," Elliott said. "I know a couple of our players definitely got teared up. It's something that we don't really like talking about, but when we do talk about it, it definitely hits home for us. I think it was just really important to recognize those little girls and boys."

relliott@ctpost.com; http://twitter.com/elliottctpost