HARTFORD, Conn. – A freshman season is unlike any another for most college athletes, full of twists and turns that can shape the future. It’s a series of firsts — experiences, decisions, accomplishments with everything in between. Some of those moments become definitive marks of progress, others carry the sting of a deadly insect bite.
Until Sunday’s exhibition basketball game at Connecticut, forward Vance Jackson’s rookie claim to fame involved the first official practice of the season, when he ignominiously and prematurely departed the workout for the training room.
“Vance struggled,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said after that 3 1/2-hour endurance test. That was putting it mildly. Jackson felt the sting for days.
“I spoke to him after that,” said senior Kentan Facey, who passed out at his first UConn practice as a freshman.
“He was really nervous, he was like, ‘Bro, what do I I have to do now? I feel like I’m in the doghouse right now.’ I said, ‘You might be, but you just have to bounce back and keep fighting and everything will work out.’ ”
Four weeks after that confidence-shaking start, Jackson has calmed things down. The nerves have departed. His career firsts have become infinitely more enjoyable and he is putting together quite a collection of fresh moments.
Sunday, as Jackson wore the UConn uniform for the first time and played his first exhibition game in his XL Center debut, he came off the bench and scored 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half as UConn defeated Division II New Haven, 83-68.
This was a day for the Huskies to unveil their five highly-touted freshmen to the fan base. Jackson stole the show, becoming the first member of 2016 recruiting class to lead UConn in scoring.
“That kid can shoot the ball,” said transfer Terry Larrier, a sophomore who scored 14 in his debut with the Huskies.
The five talented newcomers will certainly take turns filling that role. But this was a clutch demonstration of shooting by the 6-foot-8 native of Los Angeles And it came at the perfect time for UConn.
“One thing Coach Ollie probably figured out is the big kid can shoot, and he’s really going to stretch the floor for them,” New Haven coach Ted Hotaling said. “That really changes their dynamic. If you have a guy who can space the floor like that and make threes, especially with his size, it really does change defenses, you have to stretch out more, the gaps for their guards looks bigger. That really hurt us.”
Jackson was 4-for-6 from 3-point range. Three of those triples came within the flow of a 26-6 UConn run that increased the lead to 21 points and decided the game.
“We were a little disappointed as a team,” Jackson said. “The other team was a little too close.”
Jackson, who added four rebounds and just one turnover, did it with the authority of a veteran.
“He couldn’t make it through practice day one, so he’s been improving,” Ollie said with a grin that showed his pride. “He’s doing better. He’s got to move his feet. He’s coachable, that’s the great thing I love. He’s a shooter, but he just knows how to play on the offensive end. He spreads the court and makes our opponent think of him when he comes in the game.”
Jackson arrived at UConn with the reputation of a pure shooter with range out to about 23 feet. His inability to finish that first practice came as a surprise because he appeared to be in great shape when he finished second in the 3.1-mile Husky Run on Sept. 28.
“To me, that first day was a fluke, I know I was ready,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what happened. But I came back ready the next day. To be honest, I think I was just too excited, too amped up. I don’t know, looking back, if I could do that same practice right now, I could do it with no problem.”
Jackson shoots better off the catch. UConn’s guards are being trained to look for him on the wing or the top of the key.
“All you’ve got to do is get him the ball,” sophomore point guard Jalen Adams said. “He’s a lights-out shooter. He gets his little one-two step and it’s going in almost all the time. We need players like him to heat up. That gets us going.”
Through his play and his words, it seems obvious Jackson is ready to bury the conversation about that first practice. If he keeps shooting, it will be totally forgotten.
“It humbled him,” Adams said. “He took it as a learning step. Now he knows college is not a joke. It’s real. He just knew what he had to do and the work he’s put in ever since then has been crazy. He’s one of the hardest working dudes on the team. It’s going to continue to pay off.”