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UConn’s Adama Senogo up to challenge of Gonzaga’s Drew Timme

The teammates of Connecticut star center Adama Sanogo have learned how much he loves a challenge.

So have his opponents.

In two games against Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner — the other big man on the Big East all-conference team — Sanogo averaged 21.5 points and 10 rebounds while holding his rival to 10.5 points and five rebounds.

Then came the comments from Randy Bennett before a second-round game in the NCAA Tournament. The Saint Mary’s coach said Gonzaga’s Drew Timme was the best center in the nation, and Sanogo responded with 24 points and eight rebounds in the Huskies’ 70-55 romp past the Gaels.

Sanogo’s attitude is that “he’s going to embrace that challenge and go out there and kill it,” Connecticut guard Tristen Newton.

That challenge is now Timme himself, perhaps the best player in the nation, who helped Gonzaga advance into West Regional final with a 36-point, 13-rebound outburst Thursday night in a 79-76 victory over No. 2 UCLA.

The third-seeded Bulldogs (31-5) play No. 4 Connecticut (28-8) for a trip to the Final Four at 5:49 p.m. Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.

“He loves the challenge,” Connecticut’s Alex Karaban said of Sanogo. “He loves the bright lights. He loves playing other talented centers, and there’s no better one than Drew Timme. He’s a superstar in college basketball, probably one of the best players ever. Super talented. It’s going to take a team effort, but I know he wants that challenge.”

Sanogo, a junior from Mali, has certainly embraced the moment of the NCAA Tournament. He has made 33 of 44 shots in three games, averaging 23.3 points and nearly 10 rebounds in three blowout victories.

He went 9-for-11 in Thursday’s 88-65 win over Arkansas despite being one of three Connecticut players observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which means they must fast from sunrise to sunset. That includes water, which meant he wasn’t even able to rehydrate until about 45 minutes after the victory over the Razorbacks.

But while he was fasting, Sanogo and his teammates were feasting on the Hogs.

Gonzaga provides a different challenge.

“They’re the No. 1 offense in the country,” Connecticut coach Dan Hurley said. “… They’ve got all types of shooting on the perimeter. Versatility. They’ve got great depth at guard. So our defense will face its greatest challenge.”

Timme, whom Hurley called “one of the best big guys to ever play college basketball,” will certainly be at the top of that defensive scouting report in what figures to be a bit of a throwback matchup. While basketball, especially in the NBA, has gone away from the back-to-the-basket big men, an old-fashioned post battle could bring back memories of yesteryear.

“I think it makes the game more interesting in terms of the tactics,” Hurley said. “You can watch an NBA game and literally never see anything besides like a million 3s and dunks.”

There should be plenty of that between the Huskies and Bulldogs on Saturday as well, but the battle in the paint, and Sanogo’s ability to hold his own against Timme, could tell the story.

Hurley said he believes in his defensive players to the point that he doesn’t feel the need to give them help very often, but said the game plan will obviously involve converging on Timme at times.

Karaban said: “We have to show multiple bodies, shorten the driving lanes and maybe send a double here and there, but really just make it a crowded floor and make him work for his touches and make his life harder for 40 minutes.”

But Newton believes that plan may change once the ball is in the air.

”I think Adama believes he’s the best big man in the nation,” Newton said. “You see it whenever he has a big-time matchup. Personally, I feel like he’s going to be fine. He takes everything personally, and he hates when people score on him. I don’t feel like (Saturday) will be any different.”

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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