By Daniel Marco | @DanielMarco1995
“WE SLEEP IN MAY!”
The message was written across the white board in the Connecticut locker room at NRG Stadium late Monday night. The Huskies will rest – eventually.
The Connecticut Huskies continued their rampage through the NCAA tournament, defeating the San Diego State Aztecs, 76-59, Monday night at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Connecticut (31-8) captured its fifth national title in a span of 24 tournaments and became the sixth school to win that many. Since their first championship win in 1999, the Huskies have more titles than any other program, remain undefeated in championship game, and pushed their record in Final Four games to a staggering 10-1, a 91% winning percentage that is the best of any program that has played at least three games.
UConn was led by the veteran duo of junior forward Adama Sanogo and senior guard Tristen Newton. Sanogo, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, put up a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double and showed why he could be a first-round pick in the NBA draft. Newton, who transferred to UConn from Eastern Carolina last year, finished with 19 points and a season-tying high of 10 rebounds. Sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins added 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including a 3-point shot with 5:04 to play after the Aztecs had cut a 16-point Connecticut lead to just five. The Huskies led for 34:16.
The Aztecs (32-7) came out hot early, grabbing a 10-6 lead on a jumper from senior guard Matt Bradley, who was held to eight points. That was the last time they would see a shot go in for what seemed an eternity. UConn turned up its defensive pressure, and San Diego State suffered a field-goal drought of more than 11 minutes, missing 14 consecutive shots. The Huskies ran to a 20-5 spurt lasting from Bradley’s jumper at the 16:32 mark until senior guard Darrion Trammell hit a mid-range jumper with 5:26 left in the half. The Aztecs fell into a 36-24 halftime hole they would never escape.
San Diego State fought hard in the second half, cutting the lead to as little as five on a pair of free throws from senior forward Keshad Johnson with 5:05 to go. With noise from the crowd of 72,423 beginning to swell in anticipation of an Aztec comeback, the dramatic 3-pointer from Hawkins pushed the margin back up to eight and the Aztecs never threatened the Connecticut lead again.
“They’re great defensively, they’re hard to score on,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “Their length really bothered us around the rim.”
San Diego State was held to its third-lowest point total all season, but it wasn’t the only team the Huskies shut down. UConn has allowed only 59 points per game all tournament, and the Huskies used their imposing length to bottle up the Aztecs all night. The Aztecs had four separate field goal droughts of three minutes or more, were held to 19-for-59 shooting from the floor, and shot just 6-for-23 from distance, far below their season average of 35%. Bradley, their leading scorer who averages 12.7 points per game, was held to eight points on 2-for-9 shooting.
“To beat them, we had to make shots,” Bradley said. “You have to have a really good game to beat those dudes on the offensive end, and I shot poorly.”
This Huskies team exuded a level of joy, swagger and intensity that was undeniable when witnessed in person. Nowhere was this embodied more than by coach Dan Hurley, who captured his first championship. He paced up and down the sideline like a man possessed, jumping and shouting at both player and referee alike.
When UConn’s triumph was imminent, Hurley pulled his starters from the game, giving each of them bear hugs and trying to lift them from the ground. After his son Andrew dribbled out the final seconds, as the blue and white victory confetti rained from the rafters, the coach grabbed some handfuls and hurled them into the air. As he made his way through the tunnel towards the locker room after the festivities, he looked completely spent. A net was draped over his neck, his championship hat was on backwards, and he was sucking in breaths, like a boxer who just finished a heavyweight fight.
Hurley’s passion permeates to his players. There’s freshman center Donovan Clingan, the 7-foot-2 big man that anchors the Connecticut defense, who repeatedly leapt off the bench onto the floor to wave the UConn supporters into a frenzy. There’s junior guard Andre Jackson Jr., a 6-foot-6 slasher that completely reinvented himself as a playmaker late in the season, skipping through the tunnel, shouting “Run it back!” There’s Hawkins, the team’s second-leading scorer, who ran back to the locker room carrying the championship trophy like a sack of potatoes, grinning from ear to ear. And there’s Newton, the team’s steady presence at point guard, who vaulted over press row and threw himself into the stands where his parents sat, letting himself get mauled by the overjoyed crowd.
“I’m mostly just proud of the way we’ve done it, and with the type of people we’ve done it with,” Hurley said. “The way we recruit and develop young players, we do it without cheating, without lying. It’s truly been about building a program and a culture. I’m lucky I have the best staff in the country that attracts there incredible types of players.”
One of the things that’s made this team so special is how former UConn greats have helped in the development of its young players. Hurley has talked at length throughout the season about the benefits of having older players such as Ray Allen speak with the team, and on Monday night, the Huskies alumni contingent showed up in force.
Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, members of the 2011 championship team, and Charlie Villanueva, who was on the 2004 championship team, cheered on from the stands, and when the Huskies were cutting down the nets, former greats Allen, Rudy Gay and Emeka Okafor were there on the court to embrace them.
“I’m so proud of you, man,” Okafor said as he pulled Clinigan into a long hug. “Look at you, you’re a champion!”
It’s hard to imagine a more convincing tournament run than the one the Huskies just pulled off. They trailed for only 5:22 throughout the entire tournament, with 4:35 coming against San Diego State. In the second half of the six tournament victories, they trailed for a total of just 53 seconds. Monday’s victory was the sixth consecutive double-digit victory for UConn, a feat not seen since Villanova’s championship run in 2018. The Huskies’ average margin of victory of 20 points is the third-highest of any champion since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, behind only the 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels and 1996 Kentucky Wildcats, and they become the second ever No. 4 seed to capture a national championship, joining the 1997 Arizona Wildcats.
This was, unquestionably, one of the greatest and most dominant championship runs in college basketball history.
“UConn, we had four national championships coming in,” Hurley said. “We’ve been striving for number five. Now we’ve got our own. Now we’ve got our own! Let’s go!”