From tipoff to the final buzzer, what fans expected as they piled into the T-Mobile Arena was a dog fight, a fitting phrase with the UConn Huskies battling the Gonzaga Bulldogs for a chance to play in the Final Four.
This game has been on every player’s mind, from guard Andre Jackson to big man Adama Sanogo. It’s one step closer to the goal that every D1 men’s basketball player strives for, an opportunity to hoist up the NCAA Tournament trophy. The Huskies had done the work to show they were prepared for this moment, and the results before Saturday’s game were reflective of that – all double-digit victories that silenced the hope of teams striving for their opportunity. Cold-blooded performances from the likes of Sanogo to the team’s depth had propelled them to this moment and now, it would all come down to this.
From the jump, UConn’s defense showed that they were not to be messed with – certainly impressive considering the Bulldogs rank No. 1 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency. Gonzaga big man Drew Timme, fresh off an incredible 31 point-performance in the Sweet 16 to will his team to this game, had an 0-3 start as he struggled with the defensive matchup of Sanogo. It took his every will to score and ultimately, the effort from UConn would invalidate Timme’s performance. Just when the Bulldogs’ top scorer thought he could catch a break as UConn’s junior big man headed to the bench, in came the tall figure of freshman Donovan Clingan, who would continue to give Timme and his teammates some problems in the paint.
It didn’t help that they weren’t hitting from deep either. By the end of the first half, they’d shot a disastrous 11% from beyond the arc. UConn, on the other hand, looked like they were just getting started. While they weren’t shooting the ball at the most efficient rate that fans have seen from this team, their confidence, aggressiveness and grit were just the same. Jackson was continuing to officiate the offense, while his teammates like Alex Karaban hit their shots when called upon. While Gonzaga had Timme and Julian Strawther combine for 18 points in the first half, they could not have expected the improbable effort that would come from the Huskies.
After Karaban hit a massive buzzer-beating 3-pointer to close out the half, many fans on Twitter compared Jackson’s pass to Karaban to the 2001 ALDS flip play by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. With such a big play headed into the break, UConn continued to build off the energy they had built in the first half. It started with two from Connecticut’s redshirt freshman, then came Jordan Hawkins, who was about to show why he was deemed the “Air Fryer” by fans. He’d grab a 3-pointer to force a timeout from Mark Few’s crew that only foreshadowed the disaster for his squad.
Then came the foul. With 17:36 left in the second, Strawther would go up for the defensive rebound off a Sanogo miss, followed by Timme right beside him. However, the refs would make the call of the game to give the Gonzaga big man his fourth foul, a moment that gave UConn even more fuel to play at their best.
From then on, the Huskies would only add to a lead that they never let up. The effort from the Bulldogs was a sign of hopelessness, while the Huskies looked like the top dog. They not only put the fear in their opponent, but they also proceeded to galvanize the UConn fans who’d braved the trip to Vegas in the process. Whether it was a Joey Calcaterra 3-point bomb or a Hawkins three that resulted in a celebration that his late idol, Kobe Bryant, had made famous back during his playing days, they demoralized the Bulldogs en route to what felt like an imminent victory early in the second half.
“You could feel the energy. Everybody’s all in. We’re all in. It’s a family over here, so coaches, players, managers, GAs, we’re all a family, cheerleaders. UConn nation showed up. It definitely feels great to be part of this university and really be representing on this level,” said Jackson.
Hawkins, the team’s primary catalyst in the second half, finished with 20 points, including 14 in the first half and a 2023 West Regional Most Outstanding Player trophy to add to his case. His 60% mark from the 3-point line served as a compliment to the display of dominance that had UConn fans begging for more.
“I [saw] the first one go in, I felt good. I was getting a lot of open looks. So I was letting it fly. I knew my teammates [were] going to do a great job getting me the ball. So all credit to them,” said UConn’s sophomore guard.
On the other hand, Hawkins was not the only one to put on a show. Andre Jackson was essential in helping the team work like a well-oiled machine, notching a near triple-double with eight points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. From his assist to Karaban to end the first half to impressive finishes in the paint, Connecticut’s captain could be found influencing the play of Sanogo, who would end with a career-high six assists in the game.
“Going into the game, I know they’re playing for me in the post. So every time I saw them double team me, it was like, all right, if you’re going to double team me, I want to find my teammate. That’s why I was definitely ready for it because I know they had a game plan for me. Every time they did that I was ready for it,” said Sanogo.
However, while there was true happiness on the court, it didn’t compare to the emotions that were felt when the final buzzer sounded and the realization of what the team had just accomplished. They were one step closer to greatness and an accomplishment that was last acquired by the 2014 UConn men’s basketball team. But, just like this team has shown this season, they’re not done just yet.
“We had a goal to make [it to] the Final Four, but more importantly to win a national championship. That’s what we’re still pushing towards.” said Jackson.