To win the NCAA Tournament, you need a special kind of roster, a lineup that is capable of withstanding the many grueling tests of a tournament that turns men into boys.
For the UConn men’s basketball team, this meant that when they’d faced adversity in the January portion of their Big East schedule, it only showed the dog that was in all of them. Losses that other teams would have crumbled to would push this UConn team to grow both in their play on the court and the spirit they showed both on and off it. As Andre Jackson put it best, that’s the UConn standard.
“You walk into practice everyday and you see four national championships hanging. You see 15 trophies as soon as you walk into the door. That’s big shoes to fill,” said Jackson.
If one were to not have watched this team grace the hardwood this season and needed an example of what Connecticut can do to teams on the court, the National Championship would be a great choice. There’s of course the immense pressure of who will take the illustrious NCAA Tournament trophy, but it was also the opportunity for one last time on the court together that really set this game apart from the rest. From gifted shotmaker Jordan Hawkins to two-way guard Nahiem Alleyne, each person played their part and as a result, it was something special.
That was a huge reason why they entered Monday night’s blockbuster matchup at NRG Stadium in front of thousands of fans as the heavy favorites to take home the trophy, the same prize that stared at them every practice as they worked for their primary goal of that season. Of course, it goes without saying that it would be no walk in the park and San Diego State fans were ready to make the Huskies feel the brutal environment of over 72,000 screaming fans. There would be Husky fans and legends alike in the house from Kemba Walker to Shabazz Napier’s mom. They’d have the support that was needed and it was time to complete the mission ahead.
Tipoff would come and go with UConn setting the tone early via a Hawkins mid-range jumper. From there, the defensive battle would take place and it would be hard for either team to grab points, even for the third highest efficient offense in the nation according to KenPom. They’d struggle early against an Aztecs roster that was hitting from beyond the arc and while Conn. would hit their fair share of shots in the first few minutes, it remained a single digit affair. That’s where Adama Sanogo comes in. It was time for a boost and the junior big man was ready to give everything he had on the court. It may have only been six first half points at that moment, but it was exactly what the Huskies needed to go on an 8-0 run. From there, highlights from Donovan Clingan’s alley-oop throwdown to a pair of knockdown shots from Alleyne would give UConn even more of an edge as they headed toward halftime.
There were certainly some negatives, like inefficient shooting from the 3 and getting beat on the offensive boards. However, the Aztecs too made some crucial mistakes with some poor shooting from the field at 28%, nine turnovers in the first half and getting no production from their bench. It resulted in a 36-24 game in favor of the Huskies as both teams headed to halftime to regroup. One team would come out of this one and live in basketball immortality while the other would head home falling just short.
Coming out of the half, Connecticut’s offense continued to look like a well oiled machine with Sanogo showing his dominance in the paint. On the other hand, Tristen Newton was just getting started with a fantastic half of his own, contributing 10 points in the second half. It was fitting for the Texas native, who grew up in El Paso. In the end for him, it would be a night worth talking about as he dropped a double-double with 10 rebounds to secure one of the best performances of the evening.
Newton’s play was of course one piece of the pie and the Huskies would have to do much more before securing victory. The Aztecs were also not going to make it easy and while Conn. had continued to control the game throughout the second half, the real test of the game came with 5:19 to go after two Keshad Johnson free throws sunk through the net. Five point game. Time for someone to step up.
That’s where the UConn’s sophomore shooting guard Jordan Hawkins, fresh off a battle with flu-like symptoms, drilled the biggest shot of his career as well as the game. The 3-point bomb from the hands of the Maryland native swished through the Houston nets to the dismay of the many San Diego St. fans in attendance. It was the exact momentum booster that UConn needed.
“We needed a shot. We needed a basket. Coach drew something up for me so I knew he trusted me to hit the shot, so I hit it,” said Hawkins. “Ice in my veins. Kobe Bean Bryant. Got it tatted on me.”
From there, it was virtually no contest as the Connecticut offense exploded for 13 more points compared to a measly four point response from the Aztecs. Most of the work done to seal the game would be done comfortably from the stripe, a spot that players like Newton and Hawkins thrive in. The clock ticked down and the celebration was only just beginning.
As the final buzzer sounded on the college basketball season and the confetti rained down from the NRG Stadium rooftops, the pandemonium began for a UConn team that worked so hard for this moment. From dark nights in the gym to heartbreaking losses during the Big East season, it’s been a long road to get to this point. It was certainly a road that many couldn’t have envisioned for this roster,but just like the motto that Philadelphia 76ers fans once lived by, you had to trust the process envisioned by Coach Dan Hurley.
It felt appropriate that Adama Sanogo, one of the main beneficiaries of that process, the same man who worked hours in the gym to perfect his craft and would end the night with 17 points on 5-9 shooting, would receive the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. He’d taken the time to learn from some of the best UConn big men and now with a ring in his collection, he too can enter that conversation.
His tournament run has helped to reflect a phenomenal UConn season and achieve the true cherry on top of an excellent season of Huskies basketball. With the season that will not only live in the minds of fans and players alike, it will be a season that Hurley may cherish the most of all.
“Obviously, a dream come true for all of us. It was a part of the program — we sold the vision. I sold the vision to David Benedict and President Herbst and President Radenka and the university that I could put together a special group of people, coaching staff, unbelievable players like this. So it feels great to come through on promises made by me to all the great people of Connecticut and then with these guys. This was our vision. This was our dream. This is what we talked about when we recruited these guys, that we could get together and do something big like this,” said Hurley.