Struggling Jalen Gaffney was the ‘unsung hero’ of the UConn men’s basketball team’s win at Butler

UConn’s Jalen Gaffney goes up for a dunk against Butler in Indianapolis on Thursday. UConn won 75-56.

UConn’s Jalen Gaffney goes up for a dunk against Butler in Indianapolis on Thursday. UConn won 75-56.

AJ Mast / Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — His final stat line hardly jumped off the box score on Thursday night.

Six points on 1-for-4 shooting. Three rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block in 19 minutes.

On a night when Tyrese Martin matched his career-high scoring output in the second half alone, Isaiah Whaley notched a double-double and Adama Sanogo fell a rebound shy of a fourth straight double-double, Jalen Gaffney’s night could easily get lost in the shuffle.

But make no mistake: Gaffney played a key role in the 25th-ranked UConn men’s basketball team’s come-from-behind, 75-56 win at Butler on Thursday night.

“He was really an unsung hero,” coach Dan Hurley said. “We needed that from him.”

Gaffney’s production was key, especially with UConn leading scorer R.J. Cole going scoreless in the first half and finishing with as many fouls (four) as points. During one 43-second span a little over midway through the latter half, Gaffney helped account for six straight UConn points that saw a four-point lead double to eight.

The junior guard knocked down a pair of free throws with 7:53 left to give UConn a 51-45 lead. A pair of Simas Lukosius freebies brought the Bulldogs to within four, but then Gaffney hit Sanogo with a nice interior pass for a bucket.

Gaffney then came up with a steal near midcourt and soared for an emphatic slam dunk to give the Huskies a 55-47 lead. Butler never really threatened again.

“Obviously,” Hurley said, “the steal and the dunk was a huge momentum play.”

It’s been a tough junior season for Gaffney, who was expected to be a reliable backup to Cole at the point and possibly even see starter’s minutes at the two.

Instead, he entered Thursday’s game averaging just 1.6 points over his prior five games — including a scoreless outing two nights earlier against Butler in Hartford. His minutes had dropped severely, playing no more than 14 minutes in the Huskies’ prior five games.

Through it all — despite social-media clamoring for more (or any) of freshman Rahsool Diggins and less of Gaffney — Hurley stayed as loyal as possible to his veteran.

“I think we’ve kind of stayed with him and have continued to keep him alive, because we knew that we’d need him,” Hurley said. “And he delivered in a big way.”

Indeed, when Gaffney slammed home that dunk with 7:10 left on Thursday, UConn’s already rowdy bench seemed even more elated for their slumping teammate.

“When a team is built together, and when guys spend 11 months a year together, and a guy’s in his junior year, it’s a family,” Hurley said. “It hasn’t been fun for any of us watching him not play well, but hopefully this is the beginning of him being the guy we need him to be.”

Sure, Martin scored 25 of his career-high 27 points in the second half, and Whaley was back to being “The Wrench.” Hurley and associate head coach Kimani Young had talked to both players, who had also been slumping, over the prior 24 hours.

“It wasn’t some incredible, inspirational speech,” Hurley said. “With Tyrese, it was, ‘You’re one of the better wing players in the league. You’re an all-conference player, you’ve played great the whole year’ … We reminded him how good he was (Wednesday) night.”

And as for Whaley: “He had to get back to being ‘The Wrench,’ being an impact defender, an impact rebounder. He got back to his identity.”

In fact, Whaley and Martin had talked to each other prior to the game, on the heels of respective poor nights against Butler in Hartford.

“We owe the team,” Whaley recalled saying. “(Martin) showed why he’s one of the best players in the Big East. He helped will us to this win.”

He certainly did. But Jalen Gaffney helped out, too.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com