UConn’s selfless culture exemplified by Jaylin Stewart’s Big East title star turn


NEW YORK — As Jaylin Stewart plopped a freshly issued baseball cap declaring him a Big East tournament champion on his head, Alex Karaban walked up from behind, grabbed the freshman by the neck and strangled him in an embrace. “He won us the f-ing game,” Karaban said. “He won us the f-ing game.”

The box score backs Karaban’s assessment. But not just the part that shows where Stewart subbed into a taut and offensively offensive game with UConn up by two, and in less than four minutes, scored nine points, catapulting the Huskies to a romp that ended with a 73-57 victory and that league tourney title. It’s this line — “Substitution OUT: CON #11 Karaban, Alex; Substitution IN: CON #3 Stewart, Jaylin” — and what Karaban had to say about it that really explains what happened.

“I told Coach to leave him in,” Karaban said. “He was killing it. I don’t care, as long as we win.”

Here’s what we are told about kids today, in the age of NIL and the transfer portal: They aren’t in it for the right reasons; they care only about themselves; the locker rooms are dysfunctional messes. And here’s Karaban celebrating the guy who knocked him out of the game, and Stewart, a freshman who admits to feeling like he was on a queasy rollercoaster ride when he first came to Storrs, sticking it out. “It wasn’t easy at all,” Stewart says. “But these guys, they all believed in me. Them and the coaching staff, they told me I had talent and I could go far. I just had to stick with it, and now here we are. It’s crazy. I never thought I’d be a part of something like this.”

As UConn heads into the NCAA Tournament, as likely the first defending champion to return to the bracket as the overall No. 1 seed since Villanova in 2017, it will be lauded for its efficient offense, its talent, and its depth. It all matters, but none of it more than the Huskies’ selflessness, statistically evident in the 21 assists on 26 made baskets against Marquette; more meaningfully present in how the Huskies relate to one another.

Stewart arrived as a top-70 consensus recruit accustomed to scoring a lot and playing often. A West Coast kid (he’s from Seattle), he joined a team loaded with talent, playing in the bruising Big East and for arguably one of the toughest and most demanding coaches in the game. Dan Hurley owns boxing gloves, not kid gloves, and did not exactly pamper his freshman. “Why was I hard on him? Because he’s a freshman,” Hurley said. “They’ll never help you win and only make you lose if you aren’t.”

Stewart took more than a few runs up the stairs when he fouled up, and endured plenty of withering critiques of his game. These days, such treatment is a calculated risk. The portal opens Monday, and offers an easy exit ramp for kids either disgruntled in general, displeased with their minutes or disinterested in their coach’s style. Stewart surely could opt to check any of the boxes. “With all of our young freshmen that are kind of playing on a high-level team, you hope they’ll wait their turn, keep developing with us, and then become the stars of the program moving forward,” Hurley said. “We just pleaded with him on a daily basis — you know, that portal is calling and there’s a lot of tampering going on.”

Stewart averages just 8.8 minutes per game, but he’s learning to make the most of them. He dropped 11 critically timed points in the semifinals against St. John’s and turned the championship game on its ear. This was not a work of art; maybe not as bad as the 2011 title game against Butler, but in the neighborhood. UConn opened the game 1 of 11, and the Golden Eagles managed just one more make, the two teams setting a dismal tone for the game.

It was 41-39 when Stewart subbed in; it was 63-52 when he checked out. His corner 3 gave the Huskies a five-point cushion which, in a game where no one could score with ease, seemed nearly insurmountable. He also helped slow down Marquette’s David Joplin, who was bullying Karaban a bit at the rim. “All those times he got yelled at in practice, but he stayed with it,” Karaban said. “And now it’s paying off. I’m so proud of him.”

UConn carries an easel with it everywhere it goes. Sets it up at practice at home, carts it on the road and props it up in the conference rooms that double as meeting rooms. It holds a poster board representing the trophy that is on the Huskies’ target list. First was the Empire Classic, then the Seattle Tip-Off Classic, followed by the Big East regular-season hardware. They brought it here, to New York, and set it up in the locker room, propping a picture of the Big East tournament trophy on it.

That one ranked as the one that got away, not to mention the one that has stayed away from Storrs a little too long. UConn had won seven tourney titles, but none since 2011. The span is something of a misnomer; UConn ditched the Big East from 2013 to 2020 for the football-fed fields of the American Athletic Conference. But the Huskies also were stopped at the semis last year, by Marquette.

They wanted this one, recognizing that the combo platter of the regular-season and tourney titles added up to the sort of team they wanted to be. One that wins, of course, but pursues success with singularity. “We’ve got a great culture,” Hurley said. “And not everybody in the country can say that.”

(Top photo of Jaylin Stewart being mobbed by teammates: Robert Deutsch / USA Today)

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