Coming into Thursday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Arkansas, all signs pointed to the UConn men’s basketball team’s toughest challenge yet.
The team was entering the game seeking their first Elite Eight appearance since 2014, filling some big shoes from the National Championship team. Their opponent, led by one of the top coaches in the country, had reached the Elite Eight twice in the past two years and were seeking their third straight appearance. The Razorbacks boasted five guys that are consistently listed as 2023 NBA Draft prospects. On top of that, the Arkansas faithful traveled well to T-Mobile Arena, making it seem like a road game for the Huskies from the jump.
Despite all of the challenges this team faced, Connecticut made it look easy on Thursday, taking down Arkansas 88-65 thanks to a focused, team-oriented effort.
Out of the gate, the Huskies came ready to play. A pep talk from former UConn coach Jim Calhoun seemed to really resonate with these guys, with the phrase “80 minutes to Houston” (the location of this year’s Final Four) in the back of everyone’s minds. There was an intense focus, a killer mentality across all members of the team.
“I just give UConn a ton of credit,” said Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman. “I thought from the opening tip they came out with a great sense of urgency. They cut hard. They crashed the offensive boards, especially early in the game.”
Despite some intense defense from the Razorbacks, Connecticut found ways to get to the basket, particularly on the inside. With Arkansas relying less on three-pointers than most of the teams in Division I, the Huskies allowed their opponents to shoot from deep while defending the two very well. On the offensive glass, UConn played to their identity as well, winning the battle of the boards 22-9 by halftime.
“Coming into the game, Coach Hurley was saying this team is tough, they want to try to box us out,” said Adama Sanogo postgame. “We know one important thing for us [is rebounding]. In our mind, we [knew] they wanted to play tough but we were going to tough them out.”
There was a bit of a hostile environment in T-Mobile Arena for Connecticut, with Razorback Nation traveling very well to Las Vegas. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference for the Huskies, who were able to silence the crowd almost every chance they got. A few key moments include a very deep 3-point make from Tristen Newton at the logo and a wide-open Andre Jackson dunk underneath the basket. Their ability to perform under pressure allowed for UConn to keep the Razorbacks cold, all while extending their lead more and more. By the break, the score read 46-29 – a 17-point lead.
“We knew we had to come out real fast on them,” explained Husky guard Jordan Hawkins. “They’re a really physical team, but we had to come out with a first punch. That’s how you come out [against] teams like that.”
The second half started out with more of the same — a dominant UConn effort. A 9-0 run propelled the Huskies to a 29-point lead, but the Razorbacks showed some fight. Arkansas moved into a full-court press – a pressure that Connecticut has struggled with this season. The Huskies made some costly mistakes, including an Andre Jackson off-ball technical foul, and Arkansas quickly put together a 10-0 run over a 30 second span. Once again, UConn found their composure, drilling back-to-back threes from Jordan Hawkins and Nahiem Alleyne to silence Razorback nation.
After that little hiccup, it was clear this team had a hold on the reins and would not let go. They did just that, coasting to a 88-65 victory.
“I thought we played exactly to our team identity,” said Huskies head coach Dan Hurley postgame. “We played elite defense … where we are right now is exactly where we talked about where we would be [after last year’s first round loss to NMSU] … We’re thrilled to play one more to go to the Final Four.”
Leading the way for the Huskies was Hawkins, who ended his night with 24 points, including nine free throws in as many attempts. After coming out cold to start the last three games, the sophomore made an impact in both halves on both ends of the floor, finishing his night with a team-high plus/minus of 32.
Not far behind Hawkins was captain Sanogo, who was highly efficient as always, shooting 9-for-11 for 18 points, adding eight rebounds and two blocks. The All-Big East talent has made it clear there’s no room for mistakes during this March run, and his play so far has certainly backed up that talk.
The presence of freshman center Donovan Clingan was massive for the Huskies in this contest, despite playing behind the red-hot Sanogo. The 7-foot-2 big man, leading the team in blocks, was an absolute intimidator, forcing the Razorbacks to avoid driving to the basket entirely out of fear of getting blocked. For a team that is top-15 in the country in capitalizing at the line, Arkansas at times found it very difficult to lean on one of their biggest strengths.
All-in-all, it was a true team effort, with eight guys reaching five points or more. Alex Karaban was as solid as ever, hitting all five of his shots and adding seven rebounds along the way. Off of the bench, Alleyne shined, adding 10 points and two assists.
“I just try to bring a spark every time I go out there, if that’s scoring, defending, rebounding, anything,” said Alleyne postgame.
The Elite Eight matchup with the winner of Thursday night’s UCLA/Gonzaga game will take place on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. To advance to the program’s sixth Final Four, the Huskies need to keep that laser focus.
“Stick to the script, like Coach Hurley always says,” said Alleyne. “Jim Calhoun gave us some really good motivation, 80 minutes [to Houston], now it’s cut down to 40. Now we have to prepare for a good UCLA or Gonzaga team … but we just gotta stick to us, we can’t worry about anybody else but us.”
Nice article Jonathan !!