Men’s Basketball: Sanogo, No. 4-seeded Huskies down No. 13-seeded Gaels thanks to second half resurgence

UConn guard Jordan Hawkins flexes on the sideline in the Huskies’ Round of 64 matchup with Iona. Photo by Jordan Arnold/The Daily Campus

It may have been Saint Patrick’s Day, but there was no luck of the Irish to be seen in Albany, as the No. 4-seeded UConn men’s basketball team took down the No. 13-seeded Iona Gaels by a score of 87-63 on Thursday, advancing to the Round of 32 in the process.

The Gaels started out this contest red-hot, drilling their first four shots, three of them from beyond the arc. Those hot hands continued all half long, as Iona took a two point lead into the break thanks to a combined 19 points from Walter Clayton Jr. and Berrick JeanLouis.

“The first half was just about as well as we’ve played all year,” remarked Iona head coach Rick Pitino.

UConn’s Adama Sanogo goes up for a dunk en route to a 87-63 victory over Iona. Photo by Jordan Arnold/The Daily Campus

While the Gaels’ starters hit their shots, the Huskies had to rely heavily on their bench in the first. Guards Nahiem Alleyne and Joey Calcaterra combined for three 3-pointers and freshman Donovan Clingan flirted with a double-double in just nine minutes and change, but the biggest first-half story lay with star guard Jordan Hawkins. The NBA Draft prospect was missing from the stat sheet, going 0-for-6 from the floor by the break. After a disappointing Big East semifinal where he scored just five points, it looked like a bounce-back performance wasn’t in the cards. Thankfully for the Huskies, the guard had an ace up his sleeve.

Hawkins’ energy shifted just 17 seconds into the second half. A masterfully-crafted Hurley play set up the guard out on the wing, where he nailed an and-1 3-pointer, giving the Huskies a four-point play and the lead. With the All-Big East talent back in his natural form, UConn started to break the game wide open. More opportunities opened up down low for big men Adama Sanogo and Clingan on offense, and the defense took their intensity to the next level. 

“The first half he had a little bit of trouble getting to his spots, but I think in the second half he put that behind him and really just changed his energy and his focus to the team and off himself,” explained team captain Andre Jackson postgame. “He contributed a lot to the win.”

It was 20 minutes of pure dominance. Connecticut outscored the Gaels 50-24 in that span, shooting 60% while allowing just 25%. The Huskies won the rebound battle by double and put up 24 points in the paint, mainly from Sanogo. The Big East First-Teamer finished his night with a season-high 28 points and 10 rebounds, his seventh double-double of the year.

“I would just say that I played hard,” said Sanogo postgame. “[Our team] did everything possible to make us win…. I’m happy I was able to help my team and play a great game.”

While Sanogo had a modest first half, he and the rest of the team erupted in the second, with Hurley and the UConn coaching staff providing words of assertion in the locker room. 

“I think that 20 minute halftime really helped,” remarked Hurley. “We basically talked to the team for the first 12, 13 minutes [saying] ‘We’re right where we need to be right now. We’re going to play much better. We’re going to dominate the backboard.’”

That they did, as Connecticut turned what was a tight opening round of March Madness into a blowout victory. Despite the loss, Pitino couldn’t have been more satisfied with his players, citing that the Huskies were the superior squad and there was little that his team could do to stop it.

“They’ve got all the metrics to win a National Championship,” remarked the Hall of Fame coach postgame. “I thought we had a legitimate chance of beating them going into the game, but we came out in the second half, and they just dominated us. So they deserve all the congratulations.”

Jackson, an Albany Academy grad, showed out at home, adding 10 points, five rebounds and seven assists with a team-high plus/minus of 23. Towards the end of the game, Jackson was seen showing off the word “Connecticut” on his jersey for the camera and the crowd. Nearing the end of an up-and-down season, the captain showed his true blue colors once again.

“Honestly, I love to play for the school, I love to play for this coaching staff,” gushed Jackson. “Everything they’ve done to get us to this point to be this good of a team… I just really appreciate it, and that’s where the passion comes from for Connecticut, honestly.”

With the win, the Hurley-led Huskies advanced to the Round of 32 for the first time, having previously fallen to Maryland and New Mexico State in the last two years. Despite a mediocre first half performance, the monkey is now off of UConn’s back as they carry the momentum of a 24-point win into Sunday’s matchup with Saint Mary’s.

“It definitely feels like a weight off the shoulders,” admitted Jackson postgame. “It feels like we got past a marker that we kind of set. It definitely feels like we took a step forward, and we’re ready to move on to the next one for sure.”

Their next opponent, also the Gaels, took down VCU 63-51. The No. 5 seed in the West Region overcame a tough day shooting 3-for-17 from the perimeter, making up for the deep shooting with a dominant performance on the glass. Center Mitchell Saxen was the star of the show, dropping 17 on 8-for-11 with seven rebounds and four blocks. 

Saint Mary’s primarily ran a 6-person rotation on Friday, with Alex Ducas playing all 40 minutes of regulation while adding 17 points, eight rebounds, four assists and five steals. The Gaels may be more worn down than most of the remaining 32 squads – something the Huskies and their stunning depth look to capitalize on this Sunday, but they certainly aren’t preparing for a walk in the park.

“We know what we’re in for,” explained Hurley. “…they’re an older team, they’re physical. We know that surviving Sunday is going to be an absolute war and a dogfight.”

The UConn men’s basketball team talks things out during a stoppage in play during their match with Iona on 3/17. Photo by Jordan Arnold/The Daily Campus

Leave a Reply