By Daniel Marco | @DanielMarco1995
Sports Capital Journalism Program
HOUSTON — “One more!!!”
The Connecticut Huskies shouted as they ran down the tunnel at NRG Stadium after their 72-59 victory over the Miami Hurricanes Saturday night. It was a dominant effort from the Huskies in a game they never trailed in, and led by as much as 20 in the second half.
When Connecticut (30-8) meets San Diego State for the national championship Monday night, the Huskies will try to extend an undefeated record in their fifth title game appearance. Connecticut’s 9-1 record in Final Four games gives the Huskies a winning percentage of 90%, highest in the history of the tournament.
UConn shot out of the gate to open the game, going on a 14-4 run thanks to unlikely back-to-back 3-point baskets from 6-foot-9 forward Adama Sanogo, who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds. In the 37 previous Connecticut games this season, Sanogo made 17 of his team’s 338 3-pointers. But on the biggest stage of the UConn season, before a crowd of 73,860, Sanogo’s long-range shooting suddenly became an unexpected problem for the Hurricanes.
“He’s a terrific player,” said Miami coach Jim Larranaga. “I think he earned all of his points. But I think we could have done a significantly better job on him if we could have executed our game plan. Some of it may have had to do with them making three straight 3s to start the game, that the guys are like, wait a minute, these guys are on fire. So we stretched our defense out, which opened up things for him.”
Miami (29-8), making its first appearance in the Final Four, was able to claw back, tying the game up 19-19 with 8:20 left in the first half after a 3-point shot by sophomore guard Nijel Pack.
That’s when UConn turned up the defensive heat, as Miami only scored five points the rest of the half and fell into a 37-24 deficit. Freshman forward Alex Karaban punctuated the run with a 3 at the first half buzzer, a mirror image of the buzzer-beating shot he hit in the Elite Eight against Gonzaga.
“I just want all of my shots to be coming down to the wire now,” Karaban said. “I’d love that to continue and continue. It never gets old.”
Miami was able to cut the lead to as little as eight points after junior guard Isaiah Wong made a contested 3 with 11:40 to play. Every time the Hurricanes got close, though, UConn was able to extend the lead further through a bruising performance in the paint and a 41-32 advantage on the boards. UConn expanded its edge in the all-time series against Miami to 18-8. The last time the old Big East rivals met was an 80-55 drubbing in 2019 in favor of the Huskies.
In the end, the Hurricanes were undone by a poor shooting night as they made just 32 percent from the field. Pack, Wong and Wooga Poplar, Miami’s starting perimeter players, shot a combined 8-for-27 from the field and 4-for-12 from long range. Senior guard Jordan Miller, fresh off a 27-point performance against Texas in the Elite Eight, finished with only 10 points.
It was the first time Miami finished below 60 points scored in a game all season.
“We just weren’t ourselves,” Pack said. “We played really hard, but it just wasn’t falling. We didn’t have the rhythm to start, and we needed to be better sharing the ball.”
“We were never in sync offensively,” Larrañaga said. “We struggled. Guys were playing hard, trying their best, but it wasn’t the script we were looking for.”
With a Final Four appearance this season and an Elite Eight finish in last season’s tournament, the Hurricanes have established themselves as a basketball powerhouse.
“We’re a basketball school now,” sophomore forward Norchad Omier said. “I don’t care what people say.”
As the clock wound down and their defeat was inevitable, Larrañaga pulled his starters from the game, and held Miller, Wong and Omier in an embrace on the sideline.
“I just told them I was so proud of them, and I loved them,” Larrañaga said. “I’ve really been on a magic carpet ride with these young men. They’re so much fun to be around, on and off the court.”
In the 38 tournaments since the expansion to a 64-team field in 1985, Connecticut became the sixth team – and the first since Villanova in 2018 — to reach the last Monday night with double-digit victories in every game. Four of the previous five teams became national champions.
“We were just all over our identity today,” Connecticut coach Dan Hurley said. “We were hurting them on the inside. Plus-nine on the glass, a 20-plus assist number, and the effort our guys gave defensively was unbelievable.”
The Huskies won despite leading scorer Jordan Hawkins almost not being able to play. Hawkins, the Most Outstanding Player of the West regional, was forced to miss practice on Friday and was considered questionable leading up to game time with a stomach bug. Hawkins finished with 13 points, including 10 in the second half to prevent Miami from making a run.
“I love my teammates to death,” Hawkins said. “I couldn’t sit this one out. I don’t care how I was feeling, I had to play and be out there for my guys. We’ve got one more game left, though.”
This will now be the fourth time a 4-seed has advanced to the championship game in NCAA history. Of those teams, only the 1997 Arizona Wildcats were able to prevail, winning their championship game 84-79 in overtime over the Rick Pitino-led Kentucky Wildcats.
Despite UConn’s recent success, Hurley is still making time to take in the moment, and knows the job isn’t done yet.
“I’ve cried a lot, just tears of joy,” Hurley said. “Just being emotional about this team. I’m just so impressed by our players and the way they carry themselves, it’s so special, and now we’re going to be playing for all the marbles against a really well-constructed, championship level San Diego State team.”