Amsterdam’s Jackson stayed grounded for UConn Huskies

A basketball player celebrates

Andre Jackson, Jr. celebrates during UConn’s NCAA Tournament win over Saint Mary’s on Sunday.

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ALBANY — Springtime came a day early to MVP Arena.

That’s what happens when Andre Jackson Jr., who looked like he might just about wipe out the shot clock above the backboard trying to block a layup on Sunday, is in the game.

After UConn’s 70-55 second-round NCAA tournament win over Saint Mary’s, many of Jackson’s family and friends headed back west to his Amsterdam hometown. Meanwhile, he was headed in the other direction, back to Storrs, Connecticut, to enjoy the first day of spring rooting on the Huskies women’s team against Baylor on Monday.

The Albany Academy graduate had talked all week about not letting the fact that he was playing in the NCAA tournament in Albany, three miles from his high school and a short drive up the Thruway from home, affect how he played. Not to let the pressure of performing in front of so many people he knew and loved impose itself on his game.

And when it mattered most, when UConn just needed him to be Andre Jackson Jr., the versatile, ball-hawking, fast-breaking, spring-loaded dynamo, and not Andre Jackson Jr., the Amsterdam kid, he delivered in a big way and is largely responsible for UConn advancing to the Sweet 16 next weekend in Las Vegas.

“I just stayed in myself, and stayed with my team,” Jackson said in the UConn locker room after the game. “There’s a lot of things I could’ve gotten into. Could’ve hung out with my friends and could’ve done a lot of other things, but I chose to stay with my team and focus on the things that really matter.

“I can always come to Albany, know what I mean? That’s where I live. But I can’t always come back to March Madness and be in the biggest opportunity of my life. This opportunity comes once, and you’ve got to take advantage of it.”

He gave a rueful chuckle when informed that he had barely avoided the dreaded 6-6-6 stat line with an assist late in the game that polished off a six-point, six-rebound, seven-assist, 34-minute night.

It echoed his line from the Huskies’ 87-63 first-round victory over Iona on Friday: 10 points, five rebounds, seven assists in 33 minutes.

“I don’t need to try to focus on stats at all,” he said. “Sometimes I can affect the game without scoring and without being on the stat sheet. It’s just all about doing the right things on the defensive end, getting stops.

“We know when we play defense, we’re able to create transition opportunities. That’s when we’re at our best. Sticking to our identity. Everybody knows their job, and at this point it’s automatic.”

Checking your emotions, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily automatic, especially when there are extra factors at play, as he experienced this weekend.

Head coach Dan Hurley had perhaps only half-jokingly said last week that he was worried about Jackson trying to do too much playing in front of family and friends.

Anyway, it was impossible to distinguish who was rooting for Jackson for personal reasons, since most of the 14,000 in attendance drowned out the small contingent of Saint Mary’s people who made the trip from California.

“I appreciate everybody who came out rooting for UConn,” Jackson said. “I heard a lot of boos when the other team was coming out, so that definitely gives you a little bit of an edge.

“Just trying to find that balance between being ready to go and also not being too aggressive. Before the game, I definitely was just focusing on that, trying not to be too aggressive, but also have my energy up and really infectiously give the energy to other people so we can all feed off it.”

They did, especially during a run early in the second half that turned around a tight game in UConn’s favor.

Jackson hit a jumper in the lane for a 48-40 lead with 12:53 left, then sprinted down on the fast break, only to put on the brakes at the free throw line and whip a pass to his left to Jordan Hawkins, who buried a 3-pointer to make it 51-40 just over a minute later.

Soon after, Jackson was on the run again, this time penetrating the lane and lofting an alley-oop lob to center Donovan Clingan for a dunk that made it 53-42.

It got loud up in here.

And louder.

Iona head coach Rick Pitino told the No. 4-seeded Huskies after Friday’s game that they have all the pieces to win the national championship, and they showed that on Sunday.

“I felt something going on in this locker room since forever,” Jackson said. “I don’t want this to end, with this group. It’s the best team I’ve ever been on and the most fun team I’ve ever been on. I love all these guys. Just trying to make this season last as long as possible. Try to win every game we can, and look at every game like somebody’s got to go home, and we don’t want it to be us.”

Based on YouTube compilations, some people were calling Jackson one of the best high school dunkers in the country when he was at Albany Academy.

As far as spectacular dunks this weekend, he checked that box on Friday against Iona.

Given another chance late in Sunday’s game, Jackson’s body language said “dunk” as he entered the lane on the fast break once again — showtime, right? — but the launch code was rescinded at the last second.

Instead, he swept a pass to center Adama Sanogo for a reverse that made it 70-52 with 2:02 left.

“I wanted to dunk it, but then I didn’t want to get a charge or anything that was going to give them a chance to get back in the game,” Jackson said with a chuckle. “I just tried to make the smart play. It actually was deflected, so it wasn’t that smart of a play, but Adama’s got really good hands, so he covered for me.”

Despite the hometown pressure, UConn needed Jackson to stay grounded.

He’ll go home eventually.

But not yet.

Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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