The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Trending upward

Jackson’s latest outing encouragin­g sign for Huskies

- By Mike Anthony

STORRS — Andre Jackson had slashed and dunked and rebounded forcefully through what was probably the best performanc­e of his season, maybe even the most important performanc­e of his scrutinize­d career, before bounding up a set of stairs on the north side of Gampel Pavilion, ice packs on both knees, to discuss it.

Had the struggles that preceded this breakthrou­gh, Jackson was asked, made for the toughest stretch he’s experience­d?

“No,” he said. “I’ve had stretches where I couldn’t score a point. It was one of the lower points of this season, but I’ve had lower points.”

That comment, some I-rollwith-it-all confirmati­on, was among Jackson’s most important contributi­ons of the day, up there with his career-high 15 points to go with 10 rebounds as the UConn men’s basketball team threatened to blow away, then held off, Seton Hall for a 64-56 victory.

To hear Jackson speak — and to hear others speak about him — was to better understand that those at the eye of the storm see more clearly than those surroundin­g them with social media potshots or other ugly ways to write off Jackson as something less than invaluable.

Sure, Jackson had felt little pangs of doubt, secondgues­sed himself, and certainly he had been displeased with his production of late. His long inability to adapt to sagging defenses ate away at him. It has not been a fun few weeks. He hadn’t been playing to his strengths. He had more turnovers than field goals in three of the previous four games.

But Jackson’s confidence hadn’t swirled down into the Twitter toilet bowl. He’s done

so much right for so long — like play defense and simply care — to curl into a ball with February set to turn to March. On Saturday, he uncorked something that had been shaking for the better part of the New Year, making 5 of 10 shots over 34-plus minutes. His previous career high was 14 points against Xavier on New Year’s Eve.

“He’s shown incredible courage, incredible strength, to still just come in and be the most competitiv­e guy, the best leader, the best communicat­or,” coach Dan Hurley said. “It’s bothered him. You won’t find many more people you’ll come across in life that have more of a competitiv­e spirit, that care more about the team, that have pride in their performanc­e. But I think that’s all over now.”

The struggles and the stress are over, Hurley meant. Jackson appeared to find something Saturday, when some of the best snap shots and lasting images were of him darting toward the basket, four times dunking, once adjusting mid-air for a smooth scoop of a layup that gave the Huskies a 5945 lead.

Jackson hadn’t shot 50 percent from the field since going 2-for-4 in UConn’s heartbreak­ing, last-second loss Jan. 18 as the visitor against this same Seton Hall team. That was the low point of the season, it seems, the Huskies’ fifth loss in six games. Jackson had shot just 13-for-42 in six games since, his offensive struggles building even as UConn began to right itself.

Entering Saturday’s game, Jackson’s shooting percentage was down to 35.7, by far a career low, and his uncomforta­bly erratic play placed a question mark at the heart of the rotation. But in game No. 27, day No. 104 of this wild season, he stepped

forward and fixed some things.

Jackson had met with UConn coaches earlier in the week, continuing discussion­s about how best to attack these I-dare-you defenses. He finally looked comfortabl­e placing plan to action against Seton Hall. He said the keys were cutting out of corners and using open space to set screens and hit the offensive glass, as well as picking the right time to go straight at the rim instead of pulling up or floating something haphazardl­y at the basket.

“I’ll tell you this,” Jordan Hawkins said. “Dre is very strong, mentally, we have a great coaching staff that coaches him and he has teammates who have his back. So he has nothing to worry about. What he gives us on the court is energy and defense. He got to score the ball well [Saturday]. That really made a difference in the game. He’s the ultimate motor guy, ultimate competitor.”

“Andre is the ultimate leader,” Hassan Diarra said. “We go as he goes.”

Jackson did take four 3pointers and missed them all. Hurley said he would encourage Jackson to shoot at least three of those every single time.

“He also took advantage of open-court opportunit­ies where he could get to top speed and attack

the rim,” Hurley said. “He did the things as a screener that you need to do when your guy is playing you soft. He just got to all the right spots. And if they’re going to play him like that, he’s going to be able to score double-figure points because there are opportunit­ies. He put it all together.

“I think he found something in terms of where he needs to operate when people are playing him a little bit soft. As he continues to excel and build on what he did today, they’re going to have to get closer to him and that’s going to open him back up in the ball screen game, where he’s a very dynamic player.”

UConn has won five of seven at a time when so many, it seems, were preoccupie­d by screaming anonymousl­y about so much being wrong with Jackson — losing only, in that stretch, a defensive rock fight at Creighton and a home against Xavier that the Huskies nearly stormed back from 17 down to win.

UConn is 20-7 (9-7 Big East), in fifth place and in line for a bye into a conference tournament quarterfin­al on March 9. That’s right around the corner. Four regular season games remain, staring with Wednesday at home against Providence.

Who knows what this team is capable of? Neither the extremes of late 2022 (good) or the extremes of early 2023 (bad) really define this group, which has leveled out now, calm, capable, flawed like any in the conference or even the nation. The Huskies were left out of the NCAA’s first bracket reveal, not among the 16 teams slotted into the top four seeds of each region. They are No. 8 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, No. 20 in the lates Associated Press poll.

All UConn needs right now is to feel like it is in position to play its best basketball in New York, for the Big East Tournament, and whatever NCAA bracket that follows. Teams need to be improving this time of year and Saturday was a step forward because it was a leap for the Huskies’ most important player.

Jackson hadn’t scored in double-figures since that Dec. 31 loss at Xavier, the last time he also made five field goals in a game. He’s now made just one of his last 14 3-pointers and is shooting just 25.8 percent from beyond the arc this season. But when he makes a concerted effort to attack defenses in a different way, UConn is a different team. Nothing is more important than Jackson being right for the stretch and the postseason.

“I think we’re just on an incline right now,” Jackson said of how the team is trending. “I think we’re starting to figure it out. A lot of teams have different scouting reports on us and it’s taken us making adjustment­s. I think the low parts of the season are going to build us to be a team that can get through those tough and gritty games, and also win those games that are a showcase of talent. The hard parts of the season taught us a lot and it’s going to help us when it comes to march and then tournament.”

 ?? Jessica Hill/Associated Press ?? UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr., right, steals the ball from Seton Hall’s Tray Jackson (1) in the second half on Saturday in Storrs.
Jessica Hill/Associated Press UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr., right, steals the ball from Seton Hall’s Tray Jackson (1) in the second half on Saturday in Storrs.
 ?? Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images ?? Andre Jackson Jr. looks to pass against Seton Hall Pirates during the first half on Saturday in Storrs.
Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images Andre Jackson Jr. looks to pass against Seton Hall Pirates during the first half on Saturday in Storrs.

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