Miami may be the Hurricanes, but it was clear skies for the UConn men’s basketball team, who sailed their way to the NCAA National Championship game in a 72-59 victory in their Final Four matchup on Saturday night.
The big story heading into the contest was the status of star guard Jordan Hawkins, MVP of the West Regional bracket. The sophomore missed yesterday’s open practice with an illness, and his status loomed until Saturday evening. Not only did Hawkins start, but he quickly showed all 70,000-plus fans at NRG Stadium that he was good to go, drilling a three in the first 14 seconds of the game.
Hawkins was the catalyst for a strong UConn start, and alongside two wide-open 3-pointers made by big man Adama Sanogo, the Huskies jumped out to a 9-0 lead.
“This is something that I worked on all summer,” Sanogo said on his 3-point shot. “I know guys, they don’t expect my shots. As soon as I saw [my defender] dropping… This is my shot. I took my time, and I shot it.”
Early on, guard Andre Jackson got himself into foul trouble, prompting UConn head coach Dan Hurley to bench him for the rest of the half. Without their leader, the Huskies seemed a little less energized, committing seven turnovers and allowing nine offensive rebounds to Miami in the first half. Entering the Final Four matchup, the Hurricanes hadn’t reached even seven offensive rebounds across a full 40 minutes this tournament.
Even with the mistakes, some sharp defense and some high-quality shots allowed the Huskies to build a lead after the Hurricanes tied things up at 19 apiece.
After starting 0-4 with two airballs, Jackson’s primary replacement Nahiem Alleyne stuck to his identity, gained confidence through his defensive efforts and found his form. He drained two of his next three shots, providing a big boost for the team down the stretch of the first thanks to the “shooters shoot” mentality and the confidence of his teammates.
“I feel like it’s a great mentality, but not as great as these guys that helped me out,” said Alleyne. “Everybody, [Tristen Newton] in particular, was saying, ‘keep shooting it, you’re a great shooter.’”
While not making a large impact on the scoring sheet in the first half, freshman Alex Karaban was huge for Connecticut, providing four much-needed rebounds and some stellar defense, including a steal and a block. In the final seconds of the period, the redshirt did exactly what he does best, nailing a shot at the buzzer to give the Huskies a startling 13-point lead at the half. This shot to close the half was the second in two games for Karaban.
“Tristen [Newton], Andre [Jackson], those playmakers that hit me on those shots deserve all the credit for finding me late in the shot clock,” Karaban said. “Coach Murray, Coach Hurley always tell me to let it rip so I’m going to keep letting it fly if I’m open.”
While it was a great spot for UConn to be in, Miami is no stranger to double-digits deficits by the break, having previously trailed by 12 points to No. 3 seed Texas before roaring back in the second half to win their Elite Eight matchup by seven points. Hurricanes head coach Jim Larrañaga’s squad wasn’t going away without a fight.
The Huskies were able to extend their lead to 20 thanks to some big buckets from Sanogo, Karaban and Hawkins, but Miami whittled away from there. Two forced turnovers and a Bensley Joseph three gave the Hurricanes a quick 7-0 run, and by the 11:40 mark the massive lead was reduced to eight points.
“We knew it’s a game of runs. They were going to have their run at some time,” Karaban said postgame. “We continued to have trust and confidence in our group. We came this far for a reason and they came this far too… We knew that they would respond.”
With the Miami crowd taking their opportunity to stand and be loud, they found themselves quickly silenced yet again. The calm, cool and collected Connecticut squad added a 7-0 run of their own thanks to a couple of big second chance buckets courtesy of Alleyne and freshman big Donovan Clingan.
At that point, the contest was all but won, as UConn coasted over the last eight minutes to a 72-59 victory.
“We were just all over our identity today,” Hurley said postgame. “Hurting them from the inside, hurting them from the perimeter. The defense was the key. The effort that these guys gave defensively was unbelievable.”
That statement couldn’t be more true, as this marks the second contest in a row that the Huskies held a top-6 (per KenPom) offense to a season-low.
With the 13-point win, Connecticut improved to 16-0 in non conference games this season, all of them won by double-digit decision.
“It all starts with the defense,” Hawkins said on the team’s dominant stretch as of late. “On the defensive end we’ve been very elite – taking away matchups, rebounding the ball, getting out in transition. Playing to our strengths.”
On the offensive end, the efforts started with Sanogo, who shot 9-for-11 for a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds. Everything that the Hurricanes threw at the big man didn’t seem to affect the Malian forward, to the frustration of Larrañaga.
“Obviously what we tried to do not only didn’t work, I couldn’t even recognize it,” Larrañaga explained postgame. “They threw it over the top. He got a layup… He got offensive rebounds. He was blocking us out.”
Like many games this tournament, UConn’s collection of scorers helped propel this team to victory. Hawkins added 13 of his own after he, as Hurley described it, “felt like death the last two days,” but guys like Karaban, Newton and Alleyne also added at least seven points apiece.
Now, Connecticut is one win away from their fifth National Championship, taking on San Diego State this Monday night. The Aztecs had quite the opposite game than the Huskies, trailing to former Storrs resident Jalen Gaffney and Florida Atlantic for the entirety of the second half before Lamont Butler splashed a game-winning jumper at the buzzer in the 72-71 thriller. SDSU has plenty of momentum themselves, but UConn is ready to roll, grateful to have this chance for their school.
“There’s a lot of teams that want to play Monday,” Sanogo said. “It means a lot to us. It’s everything we work for. The work has paid off, and [we’re] still going and… [ready] to go Monday night.”