Dom Amore: UConn men bring all the ingredients and roll into the NCAA Sweet 16

Tribune Content Agency

ALBANY, N.Y. — It has been a long time, almost a decade, an eternity by UConn’s lofty basketball standards, but the men’s program is once again at the center of March Madness.

“This is such a special team,” said freshman Donovan Clingan. “It’s a great team, and we’re not done yet. You can definitely say ‘UConn’s back,’ we’re going to the Sweet 16, baby.”

The Huskies thrust themselves into the thick of the championship chase Sunday night with their 70-55 victory over St. Mary’s of California. UConn emerged from the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament at MVP Arena in Albany to advance to Las Vegas, where it will play Arkansas on Thursday in the West Regional semifinal, better known as the Sweet 16.

Coach Dan Hurley, hired in 2018, promised to get UConn back on the national stage after its hard fall from the top. Though the road has been long and at times frustrating, as in first-round tournament exits in 2021 and 2022, he has delivered on his promise with the team he put together delivering for him.

When the game ended, Hurley acknowledged the fans with a familiar gesture, waving his arms to call them to their feet, then walked over to the front row for a long embrace with his wife, Andrea.

“It’s something these guys have talked about, strived for, since June,” Hurley said. “They had that look in their eye the entire year, going into this tournament, that they were going to be the ones to make a true run in March.”

The UConn men seek their fifth national title. It would be their first since 2014, the last time the program breathed this rarified air. Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, after his Iona team fell to UConn in the first round, theorized that UConn has “all the ingredients to win a championship,” and in this second-round game against a stubborn No. 5 seed, the Huskies showed that Pitino may be on to something.

Once again, they played the second half with confidence and swagger, the final ingredients, in place.

“To bring UConn back to where it is, along with everyone else who is like-minded like me and has that same passion for basketball is something super special,” freshman Alex Karaban said. “To cement ourselves in history, continue to make history here is something that … I can’t believe it’s real.”

UConn’s top scorer and top NBA prospect, Jordan Hawkins, was limited by foul trouble and scoreless for the first half of the game, but the Huskies got more superlative play from their big centers, Adama Sanogo and Clingan, and production from the players off their bench.

It took much of the night to shake off St. Mary’s slower style, but once they did, and Hawkins rediscovered his elegant 3-point shooting, they turned the lights out.

And now the possibilities are more promising than ever. Arkansas has knocked off the top seed in the region, defending champ Kansas. The other teams heading to Las Vegas are Gonzaga, a West Coast rival of St. Mary’s, and UCLA. The Huskies (27-8) are riding a wave now, two wins from the Final Four.

“We all sacrificed too much to be a great team,” Andre Jackson Jr. said. “And it feels great to bring UConn back to the level we’re supposed to be at. Now it’s time to take that next step. Stick to the script, we all know our identity, we all know what we need to do to win games. I think we can beat anyone in the country.”

There were pockets of red-clad St. Mary’s fans, but the majority of the sell-out crowd was with UConn, thousands making the drive from Connecticut.

St. Mary’s pulled UConn into its plodding pace early and jumped out to a 17-9 lead. Hawkins picked up two fouls and had to spend most of the half on the bench, but St, Mary’s Alex Ducas, after scoring eight points, had to leave the game with an apparent back injury.

Sanogo, coming off his 28-point, 13-rebound performance in the first round, was again dominating around the rim for UConn. The Huskies continued to work to get the game to conform to their faster pace and ran off seven straight points to get within one. They finally scored in transition to take the lead when Joey Calcaterra, producing off the bench, hit a 3-point goal. With 15 seconds left in the first half, out of a timeout, Tristen Newton (14 points) hit a 3 to give the Huskies the lead, 31-30, and momentum going into the half. The statistics were even, but things were trending right for the Huskies.

The fight for each team to impose its style continued into the second half. Sanogo, who finished with 24 points, was keeping UConn ahead in the more methodical, half-court game, and had 18 of the Huskies’ 43 points when he came out for a breather. Karaban’s 3-pointer on a fastbreak provided a slight separation at 46-40 with 13:33 left.

Clingan, the 7-foot fan favorite from Bristol, replaced Sanogo and blocked a shot to bring the UConn fans to their feat, making the game sound like a Gampel Pavilion or XL Center affair. Then he drew a foul on the offensive end. Jackson. from Albany, scored to give UConn an eight-point lead.

When Clingan blocked another shot, igniting a fast break that ended with Hawkins’ first points of the game, a 3-pointer, the UConn fans could cut loose, or at least exhale and begin anticipating the road open before the Huskies. Two more 3s from Hawkins, who scored all his 13 points in the second half, and the Huskies built up a 15-point lead. No looking back, only ahead, to Vegas and beyond.

“I didn’t get to do all the recruiting visits, it was on Zoom,” said Hawkins, who committed to UConn in the summer of 2020. “We talked about this, going to the Sweet 16, making a deep tournament run. And we’re going to the Sweet 16 and looking for another win. The job’s not finished. We’re looking for a national championship.”