If Sunday afternoon’s UConn game was going to be anything like their blowout first round win over Iona, a game where the Huskies outscored the Gaels 50-24 in the second half, it would be quite the story to talk about before a date with the Sweet Sixteen, the first of coach Dan Hurley’s career and UConn’s first since 2014.
First, the Huskies would have to perform against a Saint Mary’s squad that certainly wanted this one badly. They too had won in double-digit fashion over their first round opponent, No. 12 VCU, and a win over Conn. would be huge, especially with the season that the Gaels have had to get up to this point. That season included wins over the likes of San Diego State and Gonzaga, both tournament teams.
But, they’d have to battle in a hostile environment. Yes, despite being a little over two hours away from the insurance capital of the world and weather conditions not being so friendly due to some snow from the night before, UConn fans showed up and the team certainly benefited. While it would take some time for the Huskies to craft some true separation on the scoreboard, similar to how they did so against Iona, it would definitely arrive in a big way.
But, the outlook of the first half certainly didn’t showcase the run that the Huskies would go on in the second half. The Gaels would go on a 13-2 run in the first half and UConn’s defense, especially in the paint, looked sloppy as they allowed various open looks to their opponent. It was time to pick it up and that’s exactly what the Huskies defense showed with under ten minutes left. The offense too showed more fight and with the fantastic double-digit half of Adama Sanogo keeping UConn in the game every second of the way, they entered the second half just a one point lead, 31-30.
Another close affair and another opportunity for UConn to replicate its second half stardom from Friday. Similar to how they called upon Sanogo to perform in their round one matchup of the tournament, they needed their star guard, Jordan Hawkins, to do the same and he responded in a big way.
He’d catch fire with under 12 minutes to go, beginning with a signature 3-point bucket, and it would only continue from there. Hawkins would add three more shots beyond the arc and some impressive on-ball defense that would result in 12 point second-half outing for him, a complete turnaround from a scoreless first half that saw him struggle. As Hawkins caught fire, it only added to another prolific night from Sanogo, who would look like a man amongst boys in the paint. His 24 points in the scoring column, including 14 in the second half, was one of the biggest keys to UConn’s convincing victory.
While the Gaels would look to narrow the lead as the under 10 minute mark approached, it would fall incredibly short and for the Huskies, they attribute the ability to increase their leads in tightly-contested games like this to the depth on their bench, an area of their game that got them 12 points.
“We have so many guys we can go to. No matter if somebody is having an off-day or an off-game, somebody is going to step up in those shoes and be ready for the big moment,” said junior Andre Jackson.
The UConn glue guy had quite the weekend in a city not far from Amsterdam, N.Y., an area where Jackson played high school basketball and carved out a name for himself amongst college scouts. It included two wins, a meetup with Bill Murray and reflections on the player he’s become under coach Hurley.
“He liked where my game was. He just wanted me to get better in a few different aspects and really work on those aspects. I did that and I worked with him over the summer. We put in a lot of work. I definitely feel a lot better. He taught me a lot of stuff over the course of this year and I just feel myself growing. It tells me I’m getting better and I’m becoming a better player.”
The player that Jackson is today, one of the hearts of this UConn lineup, is far from the player that he feels he was when he first stepped foot on campus as a freshman looking to make a name for himself in one of the most illustrious basketball schools in the country.
“It feels awesome because when I first got here, I felt like I was so far away. I felt like I was the last guy on the bench and then I had to work myself all the way up. To really earn his respect means everything to me,” said Jackson.
The Amsterdam native was just one of many storylines that occured over the span of an exciting weekend of Husky basketball. From Sanogo’s back-to-back double digit outings to Jackson’s return to upstate New York, one story that may go under the radar was the bounce back game of Tristen Newton, who put up 13 points and 5 assists that included a crucial 9-point first half.
“Just go out there and do it,” Newton said on what Hurley told him prior to this game. “He said last game I wasn’t aggresive enough. Just too passive. Go out there and shoot my shots that I’ve been shooting this year and even before this year.”
Now, as the Huskies get ready to head to western front of Las Vegas, they’re looking for the confetti and celebration to continue. Whether that’s with their depth or stars like Sanogo, Hawkins or Jackson, they’ll all be needed as the competition grows to its strongest.