LAS VEGAS — Forget the casinos, the UConn men’s basketball team won big at T-Mobile Arena and cashed its ticket to the Elite Eight with an 88-65 win over eighth-seeded Arkansas in the West Regional semifinal Thursday night.
It will be the 12th Elite Eight appearance for the Huskies, who will take on the winner of Thursday’s second game between No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 3 Gonzaga on Saturday for a chance to get back to the Final Four.
Jordan Hawkins caught fire in the second half for the third straight game and finished with a game-high 24 points, while Adama Sanogo put together a steady 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds. Alex Karaban, in one of the best all-around games of his career, didn’t miss a shot on his way to 11 points (5 of 5 from the field) and seven rebounds.
Making things happen on both ends of the court, Andre Jackson finished with seven points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals. Nahiem Alleyne added 10 points off the bench and Tristen Newton dished seven assists and grabbed six rebounds.
On the Vegas strip, the entertainment began right after the opening tip.
UConn started the game shooting 10 of 16 through the first 10 minutes with a trio of 3-pointers, and began to pull away when head coach Dan Hurley brought in Donovan Clingan off the bench. The 7-foot-2 freshman center stood near the perimeter on offense and set a high screen for point guard Newton, who pulled up from a foot beyond the arc and got his first shot to fall.
On Arkansas’ ensuing possession, Karaban stole the ball from Anthony Black in the paint, fired a football pass down the court to Jackson at the other end, who then lobbed up a pass to Clingan for a slam.
The Razorbacks scored four in a row on a pair of mid-range jumpers, but Newton was feeling it. The junior used a quick pass back and forth with Alleyne at the top of the key, then pulled up from the March Madness logo at center court — nothing but net. Clingan dunked again, Joey Calcaterra hit a 3-pointer off the bench and UConn rode an unselfish 14-0 run over four minutes to a 34-17 lead at the 7:42 mark.
Karaban, who swears he’s more athletic than he looks, jumped a Devo Davis pass on the perimeter and sprinted down the court, using a euro-step to finish in transition about four minutes later. The redshirt freshman scored six points with four rebounds and two steals in the opening half.
Arkansas never led over the first 20 minutes and shot 10 of 30 from the field.
In contrast, UConn made more than 60% of its shots, 4 of 9 from 3-point range, while playing shut-down defense and dominating Arkansas on the glass, 22-9. The Huskies waltzed into halftime with a 46-29 lead.
UConn, 25-3 entering Thursday when leading at halftime, opened the second half on a 14-4 run which included the first 3-pointer of the night for Hawkins, who scored 10 first-half points. Hawkins was fouled on his next 3-point attempt and made all three from the line to extend UConn’s lead to 29 points with 15:44 to go.
Arkansas brought a full-court press that caused chaos for the Huskies’ offense unable to inbound the ball and the Razorbacks went on a 10-0 scoring run over just 27 seconds. Jackson was called for a dead-ball technical foul during the stretch, but once the Huskies eventually beat the press, Hawkins lined up and made another 3-pointer to silence the Arkansas crowd. Then Alleyne added another from deep, to which Ricky Council IV answered, and Hawkins delivered his third of the second half to give UConn a 71-46 lead with 11:43 to go.
UConn continued to make shots in closing out the game. The Huskies finished the game shooting 58.8% from the field and just under 50% from 3-point range before Hurley emptied his bench. UConn assisted on 22 of its 31 made field goals.
UConn (28-8) is now 12-6 all-time in Sweet 16 games and has won its last six appearances (2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2014). The Huskies storm into the Elite Eight for the first time since the 2013-14 national championship run having won nine of their last 10 games.