Jalen Adams tied a career-high with 12 assists in his return to the court, leading UConn to an 82-73 win at East Carolina in both team’s regular season finales on Sunday afternoon.
The Huskies (15-16, 6-12 American) won only one of the eight games their senior point guard missed with a knee injury, and are 14-9 with him in the lineup. Adams’ return to form provides a lot of optimism for UConn, whose once-promising NCAA Tournament hopes now depend on whether or not the Huskies can win the conference tournament, which begins Thursday.
Josh Carlton scored a team-high 20 points and Tyler Polley finished with 19 (5-7 from three), both capping their seasons of impressive growth with excellent performances. The two sophomores, who have been starting all season, established themselves as major presences for the Huskies this season and into the future, and both have developed into two-way assets.
The Pirates (10-20, 3-15 AAC) uncharacteristically opened the game with two-straight 3-pointers, carving out an early 6-0 lead thanks to a shot they normally struggle with. Adams’ return to the lineup did not pay immediate dividends, as he still looked a little ginger and did not show consistency with his jumper in the early going.
Replacing the again-injured Alterique Gilbert with the freshly-healthy Adams was easier said than done, as the offense looked undisciplined and frantic in the first half, turning the ball over four times in the first six minutes. Solid defense and Adams’ passing righted the ship, and a Tyler Polley three gave the Huskies their first lead of the game halfway through the opening period.
Oft-lethargic ball movement made it difficult for the Huskies to score at their typical rate, but Carlton was able to make something out of nothing, converting low-percentage opportunities around the rim. With ECU super freshman Jayden Gardner missing most of the half with two early fouls, the Huskies relied on their interior play more often than they were hoping, as the frontcourt put UConn up 36-33 at halftime.
Carlton came out of the locker room strong, converting two-straight attempts through contact, but UConn stumbled a bit early in the second frame, suffering defensive miscommunications and avoidable turnovers. The slump didn’t last long, as Adams penetrated into the lane easily and found open shooters with good court vision.
The Huskies weren’t always at their best, of course, as the still-damaged team had cohesion and chemistry issues on both ends, but just as ECU got close, someone on UConn would get hot. Carlton was a reliable source of offense, Polley was excellent from outside, and Christian Vital continued a hot streak that began in Thursday’s loss to Temple.
Adams’ rust wore off in the second half, eventually displaying the ability that made him the UConn leader even though he couldn’t get his jumper to fall. On back-to-back possessions, Adams stole the ball and fed Polley for a breakaway dunk, then converted a circus and-one that put the Huskies up by 13, the largest lead for either team at that point.
East Carolina’s unexpectedly hot outside shooting couldn’t last forever, and UConn was poised to make sure its lead didn’t get much closer. The Huskies closed out the game without much trouble, as Adams’ presence alone added everything UConn needed to win.
Shawn Williams continued a hot streak for the Pirates with 20 efficient points, Isaac Fleming finished with an 18-point, 11-assist double-double, and Addison Hill finished with a career-high 10 points on his senior day. East Carolina is locked into the 11 seed in the AAC Tournament and will play Wichita State in the first round.
Vital scored 16 points in his return to the starting lineup after a short bench spell, Carlton led all players with 10 rebounds, and Adams scored 13 points, the majority of which came at the rim or the free throw line. The Huskies, typically shaky from the free throw line, converted 16 of their 19 attempts. UConn clinched the No. 9 seed in the AAC Tournament and will play either South Florida (if the Bulls defeat SMU on Sunday afternoon) or Tulsa in the first round.