April 3, 2023 - 8:38 pm
Updated April 3, 2023 - 10:32 pm
HOUSTON — After six games and 240 minutes of pure dominance that ran through March, then part of April, it finally became clear there was only one thing that could stop the UConn Huskies.
The final buzzer.
The team from Storrs, Connecticut, topped off one of the most impressive March Madness runs in history Monday night, clamping down early, then breaking things open late to bring home its fifth national title with a 76-59 victory over San Diego State.
“We knew we were the best team in the tournament going in, and we just had to play to our level,” said Dan Hurley, who joined Jim Calhoun and Kevin Ollie as the third coach to lead UConn to a title.
UConn’s lanky star forward, Adama Sanogo, won Most Outstanding Player honors, finishing with 17 points and 10 rebounds in the final, and Tristen Newton also had a double-double with 19 points and 10 boards.
The Huskies (31-8) became the fifth team since the bracket expanded in 1985 to win all six NCAA Tournament games by double-digits on the way to a championship. They won those six games by an average of an even 20 points, only a fraction less than what North Carolina did in sweeping to the title in 2009.
UConn built a 16-point lead late in the first half, only to see the Aztecs (32-7) trim it to five with 5:19 left. But Jordan Hawkins (16 points), — whose cousin, Angel Reese of LSU, won MOP honors in the women’s tournament — answered with a 3 to trigger a 9-0 run. From there, the only drama left was whether UConn would cover the 7 1/2-point spread and go six for six with double-digit wins.
Yes and Yes.
Keshad Johnson scored 14 points for San Diego State, which came up one win shy in this, its first trip to the Final Four. Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler, he of buzzer-beater fame in the semifinal against Florida Atlantic, had 13 apiece.
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher was an assistant with Michigan back in the Fab Five days, when the Wolverines lost in the final two years in a row. Now, he’s 0 for 3 in the big one. One of the Fab Five, current Wolverines coach Juwan Howard, was there to console his former coach.
“We had to be at our best. We weren’t at our best,” Dutcher said. “A lot had to do with UConn.”
UConn, the favorite and best-seeded team at No. 4 for this Final Four full of underdogs, set the stage for this win over an 11:07 stretch in the first half during which the Aztecs didn’t make a basket. Unable to shoot over or go around this tall, long UConn team, they missed 14 straight shots from the floor.
They went from leading by four to trailing by 11, and when they weren’t getting shots blocked (Alex Karaban had three and Sanogo had one) or altered on the inside, they were coming up short — a telltale sign of a team that was out of hops after that draining 72-71 buzzer-beater win two nights earlier.
UConn fan Bill Murray, whose son is an assistant for the Huskies, was one of the few celebrities on hand to watch them make it five for five in title games. This one marked the last that Jim Nantz would call after 37 years behind the mic.
“The one thing I learned through all of this is, everybody has a dream and everybody has a story to tell. Just tried to find that story. Be kind,” Nantz said as part of his final sign-off from the Final Four.
He’s had a lot of UConn stories to tell over the years, though this certainly wasn’t the most dramatic.
Even with that brief bout of uncertainty midway through the second half, UConn never truly let the fifth-seeded Aztecs, who overcame a 14-point deficit in the semifinal, start thinking about any more last-second dramatics.
This was a team built strictly for 2023 — replenished by Hurley, who didn’t get much love in the preseason, even after he went to the transfer portal to find more outside shooting after back-to-back first-round exits in the tournament.
“We weren’t ranked going into the year, so we had the chip on our shoulder,” Hurley said. “We knew the level that we could play at, even through those dark times.”
Despite the new-age roster building, there was something decidedly old-school about the way the Huskies took care of business in the early going.
They didn’t even think much about 3-point shooting at the start — didn’t make one until more than 13 minutes into the game — instead skip passing into Sanogo on the post and wearing down SDSU while building the early lead.
The Aztecs were too good a team to cave, and an over-pursuing defense is what triggered the late run to within five. But team built on defense finished the game only shooting 32% from the floor.
“We cut it to five. I think there were people in the stands that thought, ‘Hey, they’re capable of doing it again,’ and we were,” Dutcher said. “But we ran into too good of a team.”
UConn’s latest coronation makes Hurley the third coach to bring a trophy home to Storrs. He joins Calhoun (1999, 2004, 2001) and Ollie (2014).
And Sanogo — make that Adama — adds himself to others on a first-name basis up on that campus — UConn legends like Kemba (Walker), Rip (Hamilton) and Emeka (Okafor). Sanogo averaged 19.7 points and 9.8 rebounds over UConn’s six-game cruise through the tournament.