Jackson, Huskies ready for quick turnaround against Saint Mary's

Mar. 17—ALBANY, N.Y. — Andre Jackson and his teammates on the UConn men's basketball team got the win in the NCAA tournament they've been searching for the past three years Friday night.

But the celebrations were over by the time the Huskies returned to the locker room.

"Mentally, we've moved on," Jackson said. "Just letting it go. We won one game, we've been part of tournaments. It's a quick turnaround. We have one day to prepare going into this game. We had a similar preparation for the Big East tournament and the PK (Phil Knight) tournament. So I think we have some experience with that. We're going into this really trying to lock in."

Jackson and the fourth-seeded Huskies (26-8) battle No. 5 Saint Mary's in second round of the tournament Sunday at MVP Arena. Tipoff is set for 6:10 p.m. (TNT).

"Obviously, we know what we're in for," UConn coach Dan Hurley said. "For Saint Mary's to win the way they won today. When you have a 4 seed and a 5 seed, there's very little separation between the two teams. ... They're an older team, they're physical. We know that surviving Sunday is going to be an absolute war and a dogfight."

Jackson started Friday's 87-63 win over No. 13 Iona with a bang for the Huskies when he drilled a three-pointer to open the scoring. The junior guard finished with 10 points, five rebounds and seven assists.

"I felt good. I felt like I was going for it honestly," Jackson said. "I left it all out there. I knew going into the game I was going to just let it rip. If they were going to leave me open, I'm going to shoot it. Not get too caught up in anything. Just playing my game and just doing whatever I feel and trying to play free."

Jackson knows that he'll have to be at his best again Sunday.

"We know they play a slower pace," he said. "I watched most of their game against VCU in the hotel before we came over. I know a little bit about them. They play a lot of ball screens. Not as athletic of a team, more of a mental team. It's definitely a different team and it's going to be an adjustment. But I think we can definitely get that win."

St. Mary's (27-7) opened its tournament with a 63-51 win over 12th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth Friday. Mitchell Saxen had 17 points, seven rebounds and four blocks for the Gaels. Teammate Alex Ducas added 17 points, eight rebounds and five steals.

One of Saint Mary's biggest strengths this season has been rebounding. The Gaels are ranked ninth in the country with a plus-7.0 rebounding margin this season. UConn is second at plus-9.1.

"That's a hard question to answer because of knowing who they are. If they're not good on the boards, yes," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said when asked if he thinks his team can maintain its rebounding production against UConn. "If they're really good on the boards, then they're good at blocking out and going to the boards and probably have big bodies.

"I think we're like Number 1 in the country on defensive rebounding percentage, which is crazy. We're pretty good there. So I think if we're dialed in and we do our job, we'll fare well on rebounding. We usually fare well defensively."

He lives for this

The NCAA tournament is a stage that Nahiem Alleyne is very familiar with.

The 2023 edition of the tournament is the third time in his career that the Buford, Georgia native has competed the event.

And it's always a special feeling when March rolls around.

"It means a lot to me," Alleyne said. "This is my third trip around. This means a lot to me. Being here, being at UConn, a historical place, I want to make historical moments. I'm just here to do whatever it takes to win."

Alleyne got the win he's been searching for. The senior guard finished with eight points on 2-of-5 shooting for the Huskies against Iona Friday.

"It feels great," Alleyne said. "It feels good to finally get one. First half, it was a back-and-forth game. They were hitting shots, we were hitting shots. In the second half, I feel like we turned it up on defense, we got a couple stops. Pushing it in transition, we got a couple of transition buckets. It feels good to win. Now we're just focused on Saint Mary's."

Arguably the best game of Alleyne's career came in the NCAA tournament.

As a sophomore at Virginia Tech in 2021, Alleyne scored a career-best 28 points in a first-round game against Florida. The Hokies ended up losing that game 75-70 in overtime, but it was a performance that got Alleyne on Hurley's radar.

When asked what has allowed him to thrive in the NCAA tournament environment, Alleyne's reply was simple.

"It's March Madness," he said. "It's win or go home time. Everybody has to step up to the plate, show up. This is where identities are born really. You just have to step up to the plate, just go out there, play with confidence, play with joy. It's win or go home, and I'm trying to win."

Alleyne has used his NCAA tournament experience to try to help out his teammates that lack that experience in the lead up.

"Just enjoy the moment," Alleyne said. "Not a lot of people get to this point in their careers. I mean not a lot of people even get to the NIT. So, just always enjoy the moment. Stay blessed, stay humble. Just continue to work, stick to your identity and just go out there and have fun."

Alma mater

As the Huskies' push through the postseason continues, junior guard Andrew Hurley has kept his eye on another team: his alma mater East Catholic High.

The Eagles are in the Division I state championship game for the third season in a row — no state championship games were played in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

East Catholic plays Catholic for the title tonight at Mohegan Sun Arena.

"It's awesome seeing them succeed," Hurley said. "Coach (Luke) Reilly does a really good job every year. He puts a lot of time in with the guys. It's always cool seeing them in there. They're always going to make it and I think they're always going to win. It's just awesome seeing them doing their thing."

Hurley graduated from East Catholic in 2020. He was on the Eagles' state championship team in 2019.

Worth quoting

"If you're a perfectionist and you set the highest standards for yourself and you want the UConn job because you want to be an elite coach and you want to win big things, you always feel a pretty high level of anxiety. Driving home, on the bus, little small snippets of time, in the back of my mind (I thought about) what it would've felt like to get bounced in the first round today. It was an unfathomable feeling. I would quickly get on my Calm meditation app, do 10 minutes and just try to get that out of my head because I know this is the best team we've had. I love this team and I knew the team would win today." — UConn coach Dan Hurley on his thoughts leading into Friday's game.

For coverage of UConn football and men's basketball as well as area high school and local youth sports, follow Adam Betz on Twitter: @AdBetz1, Facebook: Adam Betz — Sports Writer, and Instagram: @AdBetzJI.