It’s official – the UConn men’s basketball team has clinched a Final Four berth, their first since the program’s historic underdog run in 2014 that resulted in their fourth National Championship. After a blowout Elite Eight victory over Gonzaga in Las Vegas, I was able to interview a number of guys in the locker room about advancing to the Final Four, the mentality entering this past Saturday’s matchup and some of the biggest components of the team’s success.
Entering the Elite Eight, defeating the Bulldogs looked to be a tall task for the Huskies, with Gonzaga boasting the nation’s No. 1 offensive efficiency, per KenPom. What was projected to be a close, high-scoring affair turned out to be quite the opposite, with Connecticut holding Gonzaga to a season-low 54 points in their biggest game of the season to date. While it’s clear that this UConn team is special, even some of the players didn’t see that result coming.
“Not at all,” freshman Alex Karaban said on whether he expected the result. “We knew [the task of taking on] the No. 1 offense in the country, and the recognition that Gonzaga gets… [but] we didn’t expect to be this dominant. I know we had the capability of doing it… but to dominate throughout the entire game, it’s crazy.”
To go up big on a tough opponent is one thing, but to keep that lead and even extend it at times shows the Huskies’ intense level of focus. Facing a high-powered offense, not once did the team think the game was over until the final buzzer rang. Some of that focus stemmed from Head Coach Dan Hurley, who gave them critical advice all throughout the game, including when most thought the contest was all but over.
“With seven minutes left, there was a timeout,” freshman center Donovan Clingan recalls. “Coach said to us, ‘Let’s put them away right now.’ We were up 30 at the time, but Coach said ‘They can fight back at any moment, let’s put them away right now.’ We had that timeout, just kept making plays and kept doing what we do – and we’re going to Houston.”
With the victory came the fanfare – confetti, pictures, ceremonies, locker room celebrations and cutting down the net. For Karaban, the pinnacle of it all was the latter, something he’d done in high school but only imagined doing at the collegiate level.
“[My favorite part has] gotta be cutting down the net,” Karaban said. “To do that at the college level, my dream is coming true. Making the Final Four is something that I still can’t believe.”
For Clingan, making it to the Final Four was a moment that he talked about with Hurley during many of his recruiting visits. Now, that dream was reality.
“I told Coach Hurley after the game tonight, ‘Coach, this is the reason why I came here.’ He [joked], ‘Yup, we talked about this 35 times throughout all of your visits,’” Clingan detailed postgame.
Another Bristol, Connecticut native, walk-on Andre Johnson, may not see the court as much as some of his teammates, but watching this program have its ups and downs over the past few years, he’s grateful to be a part of the program’s climb to national prominence.
“This is really special for me, coming from Connecticut, growing up in Connecticut, watching these guys doing this,” Johnson said. “I always wanted to be a part of this… this moment is surreal right now.” He also added, “I’m ecstatic to be a part of this come up.”
It’s clear that the Bristol duo take a lot of pride in representing their home state, especially during this magical March run.
“Connecticut is a legendary program. Just so many legends have played in this program. Coach Hurley’s done a heck of a job, look where he’s taken us,” said Clingan.
It was very evident how much love and respect the team has for their coach. It’s the biggest year of Hurley’s career as well, breaking through in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Storrs. There was plenty of deserved praise sent his way, especially from junior guard Andre Jackson Jr.
“[Hurley] deserves every ounce of [his success],” Jackson said. “This dude puts himself through more than I have ever seen anybody put himself through to get here. Every single day, he’s on us. We don’t perform for no reason; he demands excellence from us.”
It’s clear that UConn’s skipper gets the best out of his players. Having done a masterful job this season with the transfer portal additions, and with top recruits like Stephon Castle and Solomon Ball headed to Storrs next year, Hurley’s master plan for the program is reaching its realization.
“I came here to play for Coach Hurley,” Jackson noted. “That’s the reason I came here. I came here to play for a head coach that I believe in, and I believe in his vision.”
While Hurley and the Huskies have made it this far and are the clear favorites to hoist another trophy in Houston, the team knows they can’t come this far only to let go of the reins.
“After tomorrow, I know we’re going to be hungrier to get two more because we know this is an amazing feeling right now, but we can only imagine what winning the entire thing will be like,” said Karaban.