A three-game losing streak snapped, a dominant victory in front of the home crowd, and at last a W in conference play. It was a good night for the UConn men’s basketball team, dismantling SMU in a 76-64 win at Gampel Pavilion on Thursday night.
While it was a much-needed bounce-back win for the whole team, it was an especially important redemption game for Jalen Adams. The senior has been heavily criticized by the Huskies fanbase during the recent rough stretch; some deserved, some simply looking for someone to blame. On Thursday, he silenced the critics for the time being—and it began with a text to his head coach earlier that morning.
“This morning around 8 a.m. I got a text message from [Adams], and it was something along the lines of, ‘War time, locked in,’” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “When I saw that, I sprung up out of bed, got on the Peloton bike and was recharged. When you’re successful and winning, that’s the type of message you get from your elite players. When I saw that this morning, I knew he was gonna be good tonight.”
“I was just letting him know that I’m going to fight with him,” Adams said. “I know things haven’t been looking up for us, but today was another opportunity to turn that around. I sent that text to him, to the guys in the group chat, just to let them know today was gonna be a battle, and we had to go to war.”
During UConn’s (10-6, 1-2 The American) three-game slide, no one player has attracted as much criticism as Adams, and for good reason. The senior is expected to be not only the Huskies’ best player on the court, but their leader on and off of it as well.
In UConn’s last three losses, Adams racked up 15 turnovers compared to 12 assists, shooting just 34% from the field. As the team has repeatedly faltered down the stretch of games—moments when veteran leadership is most needed—much of the blame has been set on Adams’ shoulders.
After the loss to UCF on Saturday, head coach Dan Hurley praised Adams for taking the criticism in stride, working harder than ever in practice to redeem himself. He echoed that after Thursday’s win.
“These guys didn’t hang their heads Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and that started with Jalen,” Hurley said. “He was a tremendous leader the last three days in practice, in video, shootaround, in the dorms. He acted the way our senior best player is supposed to act. I couldn’t be prouder of the way he’s responded to what’s gone on lately.”
“We haven’t done a lot of stuff that wasn’t mandatory,” Adams said. “I think it’s about time to do that to try to fix the culture.”
That extra preparation was evident against SMU. Adams dropped 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting along with three assists and just a pair of turnovers. But more impressive than the box score was when those points came.
When SMU (10-5, 2-1 The American) cut the lead to eight with 13 minutes remaining, it was Adams who stopped the run, hitting a tough turnaround jumper on the next possession. Then, when the Mustangs went on another run to trim the deficit to just six, Adams knocked down a deep 3-pointer on the other end, reigniting the crowd and his teammates.
Those were exactly the big momentum-shifting shots that have been desperately lacking from UConn’s offense down the stretch.
“I was really impressed by Jalen, not just because of the game he had, which was a really strong game, but also because he got off to a slow start,” Hurley said. “When he came out, things weren’t trending well for him, so he had to show some real character, mental toughness, and he had to show who he was tonight against a quality opponent.”
Hurley also seemed to respond to the harsh criticism directed towards Adams, reminding fans that no one player wins or loses games.
“We need patience with this team, and on some level, some empathy for some of the older guys who are surrounded by a lot of younger, inexperienced guys. You saw how the court was able to open up for Jalen because of some of the other guys around him, and he looked more like a player we expect to see.”
Hurley certainly isn’t afraid to critique his team, but he’s also sure to defend them when they’re down. That relationship goes both ways.
In the second half, after a scramble for the ball, sophomore Tyler Polley crashed into Hurley, sending Hurley tumbling to the floor. Every player in a UConn uniform rushed to help up their coach. Hurley was fired up, the crowd followed suit, and the team was revitalized.
“When he does stuff like that, everyone goes crazy,” Adams said. “It gives us that extra momentum boost, and you just gotta love playing for a coach who does stuff like that.”
“That energized us, energized the crowd. Seeing your coach do that, it makes you feel like he’s in the fight with you,” Sidney Wilson said. “It was a real good moment, and that really powered us during that stretch when we went cold.”
Wilson had one of his best games as a Husky, recording three emphatic blocks and altering countless others. The redshirt freshman is quickly developing into a great help defender, serving as a rim protector on drives into the lane. And on the other end, he brought the crowd to its feet with a clutch and-one in the second half to crush the last Mustangs run. But after the game, he stressed the leadership of Adams.
“Jalen has been doing a wonderful job,” Wilson said. “Every time we lose, he takes all the blame, and every time we win, he gives all the credit to us. He’s a great leader.”