With return of much-needed depth, UConn men have everything working for late push; notes from Saturday’s win at St. John’s

As the UConn men’s basketball team set out to prove itself again in February, the Huskies rid themselves of their defensive struggles, toughened up on the glass and showcased an offensive chemistry, especially in the backcourt, that has proven dangerous.

But UConn still wasn’t getting the production from the bench or showing off the depth that vaulted them into national title conversations in December.

Donovan Clingan hadn’t been playing his best in limited minutes on the court. Joey Calcaterra didn’t get subbed in during the Feb. 18 game against Seton Hall after a string of unproductive games. Nahiem Alleyne had just started to thrive in his role and Hassan Diarra couldn’t play Saturday at Madison Square Garden because of an abdominal strain he suffered in the Providence game Wednesday.

But, when Alex Karaban was struggling and got into foul trouble early, and Tristen Newton couldn’t get a shot to fall, the bench stepped up.

Alleyne came in and provided eight valuable points in the first half. As head coach Dan Hurley pointed out, the Huskies are 10-0 when Alleyne scores at least that many points.

Clingan headlined a block party on Saturday when the 7-foot-2 freshman sent away a season-high five shots in a stretch of two minutes and 13 seconds in the second half. Playing without one of his front teeth after the makeshift solution when it was knocked out earlier in the season came flying out during warmups, Clingan finished with nine points (4-of-7), six rebounds (five offensive), a steal and an assist.

Calcaterra recaptured the hearts of UConn Nation with 15 points in 17 minutes; he shot 4-of-6 from the field and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. In the previous six games Calcaterra scored just eight points combined.

“Whenever you don’t play in a game it kind of eats away at you,” Calcaterra said, “you just get antsy to get back out there and be able to help the team again. I just knew whenever I was going to get my time to get back in I was going to be ready for it and I was gonna just try to bring as much energy and have a big impact on the game as much as possible.”

“It was real nice,” Newton added. “Having no letdown from the starters to the bench players, so it’s great, it’s well-needed. We need that for the push we want to make and the run we want to go on.”

Andre Jackson starting to get used to life on an island: Junior co-captain Jackson has not enjoyed his stay on the islands Big East opponents have left him alone on. But in the last few games he’s found a way to get off of them and add value on offense, which only carries over to the other end of the court ,where he is one of the best in the country.

St. John’s didn’t use Jackson’s defender as a lane-stuffer on Saturday like most every other team has since Big East play began. And Jackson, a gametime decision as he’d been “feeling like crap” for a few days with a non-Covid related illness, played one of his best games of the season.

“Andre’s now figured out how to play against people that are obviously playing him a little bit soft, he’s solved that puzzle,” Hurley said. “And we’re formidable.”

Jackson matched his career-high of 15 points and even made the elusive 3-pointer. He added all of the other intangibles that got him on NBA scouts’ radar, and had five rebounds, six assists and two blocks.

“They played him closer than teams have been playing him, I think because of his effectiveness as a screener, his effectiveness getting to the dunker spot. I think he’s getting better at attacking the rim too so I think that teams are gonna creep closer to him, which that’ll allow him to get back into the ball-screen game, which is where he’s really at his best.”

Saturday marked the second game of the last three where Jackson scored 15 points, with the other being a four-point performance against Providence where he shot 2-of-3 from the field.

“Man, it’s amazing,” Hawkins said of Jackson’s recent uptick in offense. “It only helps us, it only helps him. It’s great seeing him being more confident.”

Keeping it clean: There were several technical fouls called when St. John’s beat UConn at the XL Center earlier this season. It took less than five minutes for a double technical to be assessed when the teams met again on Saturday.

That one went on Newton and St. John’s Esahia Nyiwe after Nyiwe fouled Adama Sanogo on a shot attempt. There were two more technicals in the second half, one on Dylan Addae-Wusu after he instigated an interaction with Newton on a dead-ball and the other on the St. John’s bench.

“We knew that they were gonna try to do that, so we just tried our best to play our brand of basketball, we knew it was gonna get messy – that’s the way they play,” Hawkins said.