Men's Basketball: Young guns make the difference in AAC quarterfinals

Jalen Adams dribbles the ball at half court during UConn's 74-65 win over Houston in the American Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, March 10 at the XL Center in Hartford. Adams scored a team-best 23 points. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

A 16-point loss in late December. An epic collapse in late February. UConn has not played how they would have liked against Houston thus far. So, when the season is on the line, the opponent has gotten the best of you twice already, and the Huskies are playing in front of the hometown crowd… well, you know how the saying goes.

Don’t mess with UConn in March.

The Huskies have won six straight conference tournament games, boosting their overall record to 10-2. They seem to channel some subspace energy into their playing level during March, defying the odds and overpowering the more qualified opponent more times than other teams would like to count.

UConn has their young guns to thank for that tonight.

In the past, seasoned greats like Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have been the driving force in UConn’s March runs. Last night, it was Rodney Purvis. Tonight, it was the collective effort of freshmen Christian Vital and Vance Jackson, with sophomore Jalen Adams leading the chariot.

Adams finished with a team-best 23 points, the first time he’s reached 20 since Jan. 25, when UConn downed USF 81-60. It’s no secret that his hurt ankle is limiting his game to some extent, but tonight Adams proved that talented basketball players will find any and all ways to score.

“I think I’m getting a lot more healthy game by game,” Adams said. “I think my teammates are doing a great job being able to present me with some possessions. I think the pull-up is there, but I’m just taking what the defense was giving me.”

He didn’t score a single point in the paint, but he didn’t have to. He took a page out of Purvis’s book from Thursday night, going 9-for-10 from the free throw line. It was icing on the cake to his 6-for-12 shooting performance, with 18 of those points coming in the second half when UConn needed it most.

Vance Jackson flies past the Houston defense to slam home a monstrous dunk in UConn's 74-65 win over the Cougars on Friday, March 10 at the XL Center in Hartford in the second round of the AAC tournament. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

Of course, the Huskies would have never owned a 35-26 halftime lead if not for Vital and Jackson. Vital scored UConn’s first five points, and then watched as Houston 13 points in a row.

The Huskies were in a five-minute scoring drought until Jackson sunk an open 3-pointer. Rob Gray naturally responded in kind, but four plays later, Jackson performed perhaps the most athletic feat of his all year—a pump fake from the corner that ended in an emphatic dunk past two of Houston’s big men.

From there, the deficit was cut from nine to seven, and UConn proceeded to go on a 22-6 run to end the half, absorbing the crowd’s energy and giving the Cougars a lot of things to talk about in the locker room.

Of course, none of that could have happened without the defense. The defensive energy that Vital responded with after being down 10 and throughout the rest of the game was almost palpable to the point where he seemed to make big things happen just by being excited.

Christian Vital goes up for a layup in UConn's 74-65 win over Houston on Friday, March 10 at the XL Center in Hartford in the second round of the AAC tournament. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

“[Christian Vital] was great on the defensive end, stepping up. We was feeding off his energy,” head coach Kevin Ollie said of the freshman. “And then Vance was making some shots. To come in and get 12 points off the bench was huge.”

Vital scored 12 points of his own, too. Either he thrives in a starting role or he too has a case of March madness, but he’s evolved into one of UConn’s most dynamic players on the court. If there’s one major takeaway from this season, it’s Vital and Jackson coming into form and maturing as basketball players and as people.

The loss to Houston on Feb. 22 was the start of a four-game losing streak that sent UConn spiraling into the tournament unsure. Adams said that all the errors they made in that game were corrected tonight, and he’s right. Despite letting Houston get back within two in the second frame, not once did the Huskies let them take the lead, or even tie the game.

The panic and disarray that plagued UConn in their previous two encounters was gone tonight. There was ball movement, there were blocks, there were defensive stops and clutch shots. Maybe it was the home crowd, maybe it’s just because it’s tournament play, but you know how the saying goes.

Third time’s the charm.


Stephanie Sheehan is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus, covering men’s basketball. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu. She tweets @steph_sheehan.