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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    Stewart’s emergence comes at a great time for the UConn men

    UConn forward Jaylin Stewart shoots during the first half of a game against Georgetown on Feb. 10 in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
    UConn's Jaylin Stewart (3) and Hassan Diarra (10) defend as Xavier's Desmond Claude (1) looks to shoot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Big East Conference tournament, Thursday, March 14, 2024, in New York. UConn won 87-60. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

    Storrs — Freshman Jaylin Stewart has patiently waited his turn this season, like just about every other player to wear a UConn basketball uniform.

    Still, it has been challenging at times for Stewart, who described his first season as up and down.

    But Stewart has stayed the course, putting his faith in the UConn coaching staff and his teammates.

    “I know my talents can go somewhere and play a lot of minutes,” Stewart said. “But, what they’re doing with me, I have to stay patient and wait my turn, just like everybody else did. It’s been going great for me.”

    Stewart’s turn came on the pressure-packed Big East tournament stage last week at Madison Square Garden, and he delivered his best performance of his young career.

    A 6-foot-7 forward from Seattle, Stewart played a major role off the bench, helping UConn beat St. John’s in the semifinals Friday and Marquette in Saturday’s championship game at Madison Square Garden. He finished with 17 points and five rebounds while shooting 7 for 8 from the field in his most productive two game stretch.

    During a critical stage in the second half Saturday, Stewart buried three straight 3-pointers, contributing nine points to help the Huskies win the program’s first Big East tournament in 13 years.

    Those starring moments served as a huge confidence booster for Stewart, who came into the championship game averaging 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in a limited role. He was just 6 for 30 from three until sinking 3 of 4 versus Marquette.

    “It was fun,” Stewart said. “Having coach (Dan Hurley) believe in me for those types of moments, to step up for a player like Alex Karaban, that means the world to me.”

    While St. John’s and Marquette may have been surprised by Stewart’s contribution, Karaban was not.

    Karaban regularly goes head to head with Stewart in practice.

    “He’s killed us in practice,” Karaban said. “He’s killed me multiple times in practice. He’s a special player. I want him to replicate what he’s doing in practice out in the games. We’re continuing to give him confidence.”

    It wasn’t too long ago that Karaban, a redshirt sophomore, was the youngster on the team fighting for playing time.

    Karaban has served as a mentor to Stewart, trying to help him negotiate his first season in college basketball and play for a demanding head coach.

    “It’s a great relationship that we have,” Karaban said. “I love him. I’m so happy for him. … I’m proud of him.”

    Stewart, who’s job is to give Karaban a break, greatly appreciates their relationship.

    “I can’t even put into words what Alex Karaban has meant to me,” Stewart said. “He’s like a big brother. He’s been showing me the way ever since day one, so I’m going to keep being under his wing.”

    Stewart’s emergence comes at a perfect time.

    Going into the NCAA tournament this week, Hurley has the eight-player rotation that he’s been trying to develop all season.

    The Huskies are a deeper, more dangerous team with Stewart contributing.

    “Stewie earned his wings there,” Hurley said. “It’s a great story and a great lesson. It’s opened up other opportunities, too. … We’ve got more confidence in him that we can find a way to have him on the court with Alex and a center.”

    Stewart will experience his first NCAA tournament action on Friday when top-seeded UConn plays No. 16 Stetson at 2:45 p.m. at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

    After watching Selection Sunday for years, he’s finally part of March Madness.

    “I was talking about that with a couple of my teammates, it’s a totally different feeling being in it than outside looking in,” Stewart said. “I’m grateful for every moment.”

    Stewart, who came to UConn as part of a top five nationally ranked recruiting class, has a bright future.

    With UConn expected to lose most, if not all, of its starting lineup, Stewart will have a chance to play a major role next season.

    Hurley certainly hopes that Stewart will resist the temptation of the transfer portal and stick around in Storrs. He called Stewart “a future star.”

    “With all of our freshmen that are playing on a high level team, you hope they’ll wait their turn, keep developing with us, and then become stars of the program moving forward,” Hurley said. “He’s the type of player that freshman to sophomore year will take an enormous jump.

    “... So we just plead with him on a daily basis, that the portal is calling and there’s a lot of tampering going on. Hopefully, our young players stay with us because we’re going to lose a number of players from this team.”

    In other news, UConn (31-3) jumped from No. 2 to No. 1 in Monday’s Associated Press top 25 poll.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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