By Daniel Marco | @DanielMarco1995
Sports Capital Journalism Program
HOUSTON – When the University of Connecticut Huskies meet the University of Miami Hurricanes in the NCAA Men’s Final Four at NRG Stadium, Adama Sanogo, a junior center from Mali, will have faced an added challenge in the preparation of the biggest game of his career.
Sanogo, a Muslim, is currently celebrating Ramadan, and has been fasting since the beginning of the holiday over a week ago.
“I think I play better when I’m fasting,” Sanogo added. “I feel a little bit lighter eating nothing all day so I’m able to run a bit faster.”
Since he can only eat once the sun sets, Sanogo has had trouble fitting in meals to make sure he’s energized by game time. Luckily for UConn, the sun looks to be setting at around 7:39 p.m. central time, 10 minutes before the scheduled 7:49 tipoff.
“It’s definitely hard, but it’s my faith,” Sanogo said. “This isn’t something I started doing this year. I’ve been doing it since I was in high school, so eight years now.”
Sanogo, who was twice named Big East Player of the Week, averages 17.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Although he can’t eat during the day, Sanogo still finds time to refuel overnight to make sure he can maintain his body.
From after the sun goes down until 5 a.m. the next morning, I eat a lot of food with protein,” said Sanogo. “I wake up at 5 a.m. and drink a lot of coconut water to make sure that during the day I stay hydrated. That’s my plan right now.”
UConn (29-8), making its sixth Final Four appearance in program history and first since the national championship in 2014, reached this point by bulldozing No. 3 seed Gonzaga, 82-54, in the West regional final.
Connecticut coach Dan Hurley will be making his first-ever Final Four appearance, and has taken some time to take in the scene in Houston.
“As I’ve said to my family, this is kind of a big deal, just the feeling of exhilaration and how big it is,” Hurley said. “To keep calm, I’m just trying to keep my guys in that balance between the edge you need to have as a team, but also not making them uptight and nervous. We want to keep that confidence.”
Miami (29-7) will make its first-ever Final Four appearance, a year after an Elite Eight finish. The Hurricanes reached a national semifinal through a star-making performance from fifth-year senior guard Jordan Miller, who finished a perfect 7-for-7 from the field and 13-for-13 from the free-throw line, scoring 27 points in the 88-81 victory over Texas. The only other player to be perfect from the floor and the stripe with at least seven attempts in the NCAA tournament was Duke’s Christian Laettner in the historic 1992 East regional overtime victory over Kentucky.
“I didn’t know I had a perfect game until afterwards,” Miller said. “I was just in the moment, trying to win and get to the Final Four. But it was cool, and I joined some really elite company and got to talk to Christian Laettner.”
Head coach Jim Larrañaga will be making his second Final Four appearance, having previously reached this point with George Mason in 2006, where they coincidentally beat a heavily favored UConn team in overtime in the Elite Eight.
“I remember everything about that game,” Larrañaga said. “We were down nine at halftime, and I went into the locker room and told them we got them right where we want them, because they think this game is over. And sure enough, we pulled out the win.”
Miami and UConn, both former members of the old Big East, last played back in November of 2019, an 80-55 rout won by the Huskies. This game looks to be a much tighter contest.
“UConn plays really hard and aggressive at both ends of the court,” Larrañaga said. “They have skills at every position. My staff and I have been very impressed with them, and we know we have a big challenge ahead of us tomorrow night.”
Hurley described Miami as the greatest defensive challenge the Huskies will face this season. “It’s the best collection of guards we’ve faced,” Hurley said, “We’ve got to force them to beat us from the perimeter. We can’t allow them to get to the rim, and (we) have to avoid letting them in the paint or on the free-throw line as much as possible.
“All of the preparations are in,” Hurley said. “Now it’s time to go out and play.”