Dan Hurley tends to not deviate from the norm, using just two different starting lineups over the Huskies’ first 19 games. He was forced to use a third Wednesday night.
The team announced Alterique Gilbert would miss last night’s game against Temple due to personal reasons four hours prior to tip-off. In Gilbert’s absence, Jalen Gaffney was the starting point guard for the first time in his young career.
— UConn Men's Basketball (@UConnMBB) January 29, 2020
With just seven scholarship players available, it seemed like a guarantee the freshman would get the starting nod as the only true ball handler available. Gaffney’s play has been on the rise of late, playing with confidence and poise over the last month and a half.
“That comes with getting work in the gym, getting in reps, practicing, playing well in practice,” Gaffney said on his recent play. “It just comes with everything.”
He made his first shot of the night, a corner 3, but went cold, missing six of his seven attempts from deep. Gaffney wasn’t deterred, remaining calm and involved in the offense as he scored nine points. The ball moved with purpose and, more often than not, ended up in the hands of an open Husky. UConn finished with 13 assists in the 78-63 win over the Owls, a team-high five coming from Gaffney.
“He had a calming influence,” Hurley said. “What he did was really good.”
Gaffney looked comfortable as the floor general and one could imagine playing in front of a home crowd only helped the matter. He relayed in plays from a barking Hurley on the sideline, dribbled through full-court presses and was in control.
“That’s the job of the [point guard], to make sure everyone is good on the floor and nobody’s in a panic,” Gaffney said. “That’s my job and I think I accomplished that well today.”
Gaffney was not the only Husky to have trouble finding the bottom of the net as the UConn shot 35% from the floor and 24% from 3-point range, though six of the seven in rotation scored double figures. When shots weren’t falling, the team relied on its identity: Defense.
“We say it everyday, our identity is defense,” Gaffney said. “Our identity is not making shots. We play defense, we play hard. The shots will fall eventually.”
The New Jersey native showed his youth on a couple defensive possessions, but kept his men quiet for the most part. His main responsibilities, Alani Moore II and Josh Pierre-Louis, accounted for 12 points, six rebounds, five assists and three turnovers
Gaffney’s most complete game, before Wednesday, was in Sunday’s loss to Tulsa where he scored eight and dropped five dimes. He played an intracule role in the youth-led 12-0 run in the second half and was the one who found an open Christian Vital in the corner on UConn’s final possession. He has yet to match his career bests in points (10) and assists (7) from December.
Now with three freshmen starting, Gaffney’s start comes as a part of an infusion of youth to the men’s squad. The Huskies were without three players Wednesday night and likely will be for the time being. Tyler Polley is out for the season and there are no real timetables for Gilbert or Sidney Wilson, leaving minutes up for grabs. In response, Gaffney played a new career-high 36 minutes, most of them with fellow freshmen James Bouknight and Akok Akok.
“Young freshman, they want to be out there hoopin’,” Hurley said. “It’s kind of their time here to lead us into the next chapter of great success in this program. They were jubilant yesterday about getting a chance to start together.”
Akok has started from game one and Bouknight has since the double-overtime loss to Wichita State. The three combined for 31 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and just three turnovers Wednesday night.
“We know how good we are so we just play our game and we play well as a team,” Gaffney said.
As members of the starting five, at least for now, the trio will have their talents tested next time out when they face the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, minus James Wiseman, in the Memphis Tigers. The Saturday matinee will be Gaffney’s first road start.