MIKE AN­THONY

Af­ter in­juries, Gil­bert fi­nally pro­duc­ing for Huskies

Hartford Courant - - Front Page -

Now healthy, UConn’s Al­terique Gil­bert is reach­ing his po­ten­tial.

STORRS — Al­terique Gil­bert has been at UConn for­ever, it seems, well over two years now. He’s a long­stand­ing mem­ber of the Storrs com­mu­nity, hav­ing worked a part-time job in the pres­i­dent’s of­fice and stud­ied and, as much as any­thing, spent count­less hours re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing in the wake of shoul­der in­juries and surg­eries that cost him the bulk of two bas­ket­ball sea­sons.

“To be able to look back and say I over­came that, it’s a pos­i­tive for me,” Gil­bert said Thurs­day night af­ter the lat­est step in his evo­lu­tion, a strong 19-point per­for­mance in UConn’s 76-64 victory over SMU at Gam­pel Pavil­ion. “And to play is just a bless­ing. I don’t take any day for granted.”

No player bet­ter rep­re­sents UConn’s past, present and fu­ture than Gil­bert, a red­shirt sopho­more who has played, and started, all 16 games for the Huskies af­ter be­ing lim­ited to just nine games over his first two sea­sons. He is an emerg­ing source of de­pend­able and even pro­lific play, though still a strange com­bi­na­tion of sea­soned vet­eran and es­sen­tially over­whelmed rookie.

That’s the deal when you’re is so often in a sling or street clothes over two years, time valu­able in be­ing part of a pro-

gram but barely part of a team.

“You see the dy­namic [play], and you see the, ‘Why did he just try to drive that gap? What did he see there?’ ” coach Dan Hur­ley said. “You have to treat him like he’s a fresh­man. He hasn’t played col­lege bas­ket­ball. Plus, he hasn’t played bas­ket­ball. He’s just been on the shelf. There’s just rust there. He’s go­ing to con­tinue to de­velop. He’s ob­vi­ously a tal­ented guy. His speed and 3-point shoot­ing are im­pres­sive, and his on-the­ball de­fense. We just have to help him be­come a bet­ter de­ci­sion-maker.”

Gil­bert was a McDon­ald’s All-Amer­i­can in high school and has looked like it through his first pro- longed op­por­tu­nity in col­lege — at times, any­way. He’s one of UConn’s best play­ers right now, and he should be through 2020-21, es­pe­cially if his com­fort level catches up with his phys­i­cal gifts.

We’re see­ing the trans­for­ma­tion play out. Gil­bert is av­er­ag­ing 13.2 points on the heels of a par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive seven-game stretch dur­ing which he av­er­aged 15.8. He is shoot­ing 44.4 per­cent on 3-point­ers, sec­ond in the AAC, af­ter mak­ing 17 of 35 over that time, which fol­lowed abysmal show­ings against Ari­zona and Lafayette (a com­bined 4-for-16 from the field, 0-for-5 on 3s, 10 points). He’s be­com­ing a lock­down de­fender, too, as most re­cently ev­i­denced by his work on SMU’s Jah­mal McMur­ray, who was 5for-18 from the field and 1-for-9 on 3s Thurs­day.

Gil­bert is in an in­creas- in­gly bet­ter place. He will con­tinue to be, week to week, month to month, sea­son to sea­son. The most re­cent shoul­der in­juries — the two at UConn that fol­lowed two in high school — threw his whole world out of whack, re­sult­ing in in­ac­tiv­ity, re­hab, bore­dom, even de­pres­sion.

He’s back to full speed, work­ing to­ward full ef­fi­ciency, and that work will have a lot to say about what be­comes of UConn in the AAC this sea­son.

“I just feel like I’m tak­ing it step by step,” Gil­bert said. “I’m out there hav­ing fun, and I think I’m do­ing a good job get­ting back on my feet and lead­ing my team to a bet­ter po­si­tion. I sat on the bench for two years, and I saw things a cer­tain way. Now I’m ac­tu­ally out on the court and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing things in games. You see it a dif­fer­ently. I got the best of both worlds, and I’m just try­ing to learn each and ev­ery day. … I’m feel­ing great, trust­ing my body and just play­ing bas­ket­ball.”

Re­hab­bing from such se­ri­ous in­juries is com­pli­cated, the mind some­times trail­ing the body. Gil­bert won­dered if his play would be hin­dered by any fear of the next in­jury. Early on, it would en­ter his mind dur­ing dives for loose balls and drives to the bas­ket. He’s past that.

The fear does seem to be on the mind of fans, at times. Gil­bert was clob­bered near the bas­ket dur­ing the first half Thurs­day and hit the floor hard. He popped right back up, jump­ing. It was an “I’m fine, chill out” mo­ment as the crowd roared its ap­proval.

We all got used to see­ing Gil­bert on the pe­riph­ery. Now we’re get­ting used to see­ing him in the thick of things. He’s av­er­ag­ing 28.9 min­utes, de­vel­op­ing a feel for the of­fense and a nice chem­istry with Jalen Adams. That bodes well for UConn down the stretch and es­pe­cially into the next two years.

“It’s go­ing to take Al time to be­come the player you hoped he’d be,” Hur­ley said. “You just need ex­pe­ri­ence, man. ... You need min­utes on the court. You’re go­ing to learn some hard lessons. The hard lessons aren’t over.”

Those lessons take place in games now, 16 and count­ing. There are hints of a lit­tle Shabazz Napier moxie and A.J. Price cool in Gil­bert’s game. This is only the be­gin­ning of what could end up be­ing a spe­cial player, a spe­cial ca­reer, one worth wait­ing a cou­ple years for.

“I just want to be a leader and play my heart out ev­ery sin­gle day,” he said.

BRAD HOR­RI­GAN/HART­FORD COURANT

UConn guard Al­terique Gil­bert is av­er­ag­ing 13.2 points af­ter scor­ing 19 against SMU on Thurs­day.

MIKE AN­THONYman­[email protected]

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