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Salem's Evans has invited special guests for senior day

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published March 09. 2013 4:00AM

When R.J. Evans walks out for today's pregame senior day festivities, he'll be escorted by some special guests.

Of course, his parents, Ray and Deborah, will be there for the emotional sendoff. They've been faithful fans and loving supporters of their oldest son since he first picked up a basketball, religiously watching him play at Norwich Free Academy, Holy Cross and, finally, UConn.

Phil and Ellen Emery also will be by R.J.'s side.

They are the parents of one of R.J.'s best friends, Taylor, who died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2007, the summer before Emery's senior year at East Lyme High School. The Emerys, too, have been regulars at R.J.'s college games.

R.J. helped keep Taylor's memory alive. He sticks Taylor's funeral prayer card in his sock for games.

"Before he died and even since he died they've been our No. 1 fans," R.J. said Friday. "They had season tickets every year at Holy Cross. They're like a second set of parents to me. I see them all the time. I love them and I decided to ask them to walk out with me."

"It got kind of emotional. When I asked his mom, she started to cry because she's never been part of senior night. Taylor was their only child."

The Emerys appreciate the kind gesture and look forward to participating in the ceremony.

"He really touched us," Ellen said. "He's been through this whole journey with us and we've been through the journey with him with basketball. He's just honored Taylor every chance he could. He's just been wonderful with us. We feel like we've been adopted by the Evanses.

" I didn't think I'd ever be able to watch basketball again. But R.J. has just brought us back to it."

The two sets of parents got together on Friday night to watch Kastine Evans, R.J.'s sister, play for Kentucky on television.

They'll be bursting with pride at Gampel Pavilion today for UConn's season finale against Providence College.

"It's going to be something else," Ray said. "He's had a good college career and he's getting two degrees. You can't beat that. We are so proud of him. He helped his state team change the whole outlook of the program. The kids in Connecticut now understand that you can be a basketball player and you can also be academically successful. That's the biggest message."

It's been quite a journey for the Salem resident.

After graduating from Holy Cross last spring with one year of eligibility left, Evans fulfilled a dream by committing to the Huskies. He enrolled in graduate school and has earned high marks while studying educational psychology.

With his unifying personality, he's been a perfect fit for a team in desperate need of leadership. Despite being a newcomer, he quickly earned the respect of his teammates. He's been a positive influence, on and off the court.

"It was pretty amazing because we could have been a team that never got along under the circumstances," R.J. said. "We came together and played together. I feel like they've been my teammates forever and it's only been for five months."

With injured Shabazz Napier sitting out the last two games, Evans has started in the backcourt. On the season, he's averaging 3.3 points and 1.5 rebounds while appearing in 26 games.

His impact goes far beyond statistics.

"He's meant a lot," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I call him my unpaid coach. He's just an energy giver, not an energy taker. Every day he's up and he's ready to play. He's a steadying rock and he knows his role.

"He's just been a great addition to this program. He'll always have a special place in our heart."

A self-described momma's boy, Evans loves the fact he's played close to home his entire college career. There's the added benefit of receiving deliveries of his mom's delicious home-cooking.

Deborah will make another special delivery today. She's providing the food for a postgame celebration at R.J.'s apartment.

R.J. will miss life with his UConn family and miss seeing his two sets of parents rooting for him from the sidelines.

"It's a bittersweet moment," R.J. said. "It's a good accomplishment to make it through five years of college basketball. I'm sad to see it end, actually.

" (Saturday) is just going to be a good day all-around. We're going to go out and fight like we always do. No matter the result we're going to hold our heads high because we did a lot this season. I'm proud of this team and happy to be a part of it."

Dave Vandal, a walk-on from Stonington, also will be honored during Senior Day.

g.keefe@theday.com

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