In their final game before the conference tournament and with not much to gain from a victory, there were plenty of reasons why senior Jalen Adams should have sit out Sunday’s matchup against ECU. With his post-college stock in the balance, it’s a wonder whether there was any reason for returning this season at all.
A season in which Adams drew more criticism—about his play, his work ethic, his commitment to the program—than anyone else on the roster. But on Sunday, he certainly cared more about the name on the front of the jersey than the one on the back.
“Being at one school for four years, it’s only right you get to put on the jersey to close out the end of the season,” Adams said after the game. “It just meant a lot for me to be out there with my brothers.”
After the game, head coach Dan Hurley confirmed that Adams had been cleared for play, but the decision on whether he’d suit up was ultimately his to make. Apparently, it wasn’t a tough choice.
“Don’t you dare get out there unless you know 100 percent without question that you’re healthy enough to play. If there’s anything that doesn’t feel great to you, you cannot get out on the court,” Hurley said before the game. “Jalen wanted in badly and I couldn’t keep him out. He was adamant.”
It took until the regular season finale against second-to-last place ECU (10-20, 3-15 The American) to do it, but UConn (15-16, 6-12 The American) finally secured a victory in a true road game. Entering Sunday, the Huskies were winless in all eight previous road games this season.
Adams, who had missed the last seven games with a sprained MCL, was not visibly hobbled by the knee but was clearly gassed for much of the second half. That didn’t stop him from taking over down the stretch.
When the Pirates pulled within two, 64-62, with 5:36 remaining, it looked like the start of another road collapse. But with Adams facilitating the entire way, the Huskies responded with a 13-1 run and never looked back.
On an afternoon where his outside shot showed considerable rust, Adams played the role of facilitator. The senior matched his career-high with 12 assists (against just two turnovers) to go along with 13 points. He was in the middle of everything in crunchtime, driving through the lane before dumping it off for a Josh Carlton dunk or lobbing it up for a Sidney Wilson alley-oop.
It was quite a redemption night for Adams, but he certainly didn’t do it alone. Sophomore Tyler Polley was locked in from beyond the arc, hitting five treys and scoring 16 of his 19 points in the second half. Carlton was once again unstoppable in the paint, joining Adams in the double-double club with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Christian Vital had 16 and Wilson added 10, all of which on rim-rattling slams.
With the win, UConn locks up the No. 9 seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament. That sets up a date with No. 8 seeded USF (19-12, 8-10 The American), who have dropped four of their last five games, on Thursday at 1 p.m.
The teams split their season series this year. Unsurprisingly, the Huskies lost at USF on Jan. 2 but pulled out a two-point victory on March 3 at Gampel Pavilion.
“It’s getting around that time, it’s March, anything can happen,” Adams told Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant after the game. “I’ve been on teams where we weren’t supposed to win certain games and we won those games just by believing … Anything’s possible next week.”
If the Huskies are unable to get out of the first round, it’ll be the final time that Adams takes the court in a UConn uniform. After Sunday’s memorable performance, he reflected on his time at UConn and his basketball career moving forward.
“This will probably be my last time playing on a team where everyone genuinely cares for me and has love for me,” Adams said. “The rest after this is gonna probably be just business.”