The San Juan Daily Star
UConn will meet San Diego State in the final after romping past Miami
By Billy Witz
A year ago, when Connecticut flamed out of the NCAA Tournament, upset by 12th-seeded New Mexico State in the opening round, coach Dan Hurley was back in his office the next Monday at 7 a.m. to meet with his staff and his players.
He had been in Storrs, Connecticut, for four years and hadn’t won a postseason game. He did not need any time for reflection.
“The other coaches did not want me to do it,” Hurley said of the meetings. “They thought I was too emotional to make decisions, but I knew exactly where we needed to go.”
Hurley set forth his plan that day. He would remake the roster, bringing in players to build around his three-man core of center Adama Sanogo, forward Andre Jackson Jr. and guard Jordan Hawkins. The additions had two main qualities: They could shoot the heck out of the ball and they wouldn’t shrink in big moments.
The seeds of that cold March morning a year ago have carried Connecticut all the way to a spot in the national championship game after its 72-59 defeat of Miami in Houston on Saturday night. Tonight (9 p.m. ET, CBS) the Huskies will play San Diego State, which spoiled the night for another South Florida team when Lamont Butler’s jumper at the buzzer rescued a 72-71 victory over Florida Atlantic.
The Huskies can restore a semblance of order to a chaotic tournament with a capstone victory, which would be their fifth championship in 25 years — something no men’s program other than UCLA and Duke has accomplished.
They reached the final with another emphatic victory before a parade of UConn royalty — Kemba Walker, Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor and Richard Hamilton among them. The Huskies’ only uncomfortable moments were caused by fits of turnovers that fueled Miami’s transition breaks after UConn had built a 20-point second-half lead.
“There’s nowhere where we’re weak as a team, and we’re deep,” Hurley said after UConn’s closest game in the tournament. “So we’re able to kind of body blow our opponent and continue to just put together quality possessions at both ends.”
He added: “It has a cumulative effect. It’s been able to break opponents.”
The catalyst for the Huskies on Saturday night was Sanogo, the junior from Mali who was pleased to be playing the nightcap because he observes Ramadan, the Muslim holy month in which he fasts from sunrise to sundown.
“If I get my coconut water and fruit, I’ll be fine,” said Sanogo, who feasted on the smallish Hurricanes, contributing 21 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
The Huskies were also buoyed by Hawkins, who had 13 points.
It was unclear until shortly before tipoff whether Hawkins, UConn’s sharpshooting sophomore wing, would play. He missed Friday’s practice with a stomach bug after a dinner of steak and calamari on Thursday night that left team doctors concerned enough that they isolated Hawkins from his teammates at their downtown Houston hotel.
But Hawkins, who “felt like death the last two days,” according to Hurley, was in the lineup and quickly gave a sign that his stomach had settled, swishing a long 3-pointer from the wing 14 seconds into the game.
When forward Alex Karaban sank a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer, holding a shooter’s goose-necked form for effect, the Huskies skipped toward the locker room with a 37-24 lead even with Jackson playing only a little more than four minutes after picking up two quick fouls.
It was not a good sign for the Hurricanes. The Huskies, through this tournament, had gotten here mostly by jockeying with their opponents for a half before overwhelming them with a second-half assault. They trailed Iona at halftime and led St. Mary’s by 1 point and Gonzaga by 7 at the break. Only against Arkansas were they comfortably in front.
That second half against Iona may have been what settled the Huskies.
Sanogo said it was natural to think about last season’s flop.
“Myself, I was feeling the pressure,” Sanogo said of his walk to the locker room against Iona. “I was like, ‘Damn, why are we down against Iona?’ But after thinking about it, our studying wasn’t good. We figured it out, changed our defense a little bit, and we were able to fly.”
The Huskies have looked in the tournament much like the team that began the season with 14 convincing victories, including a blowout of Alabama, which would finish the regular season as the top-ranked team in the nation. But after that hot start, the Huskies went careening off the rails, losing six of eight, before stabilizing ahead of the tournament.
By the time the national semifinals arrived, Connecticut presented the Hurricanes with perhaps the most intimidating opponent of those available in Houston.
One of the questions Miami faced was how Norchad Omier, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound power forward masquerading as a center, would hold up against the Huskies’ revolving towers: the chiseled Sanogo and the towering Donovan Clingan, a 7-2 freshman.
Omier, who grew up in Nicaragua wanting to pitch in the big leagues until he grew into enough of a basketball prospect that he moved to Miami for his senior year in high school, could provide little resistance against Sanogo nor contribute much offense. He did not score his first basket until two minutes into the second half, by which time Miami trailed by 17.
On the rare occasions that Connecticut’s free-flowing offense bogged down, the Huskies could just toss the ball into Sanogo, who made 9 of 11 shot attempts — including a pair of 3-pointers. Clingan had just 4 points, but his three offensive rebounds and his sky-scraping arms repeatedly thwarted Miami.
The Hurricanes had traversed the most difficult road to Houston.
They trailed Drake late before scoring the final 10 points in a first-round win. They befuddled No. 4 seed Indiana, blitzed No. 1 seed Houston and surged past No. 2 Texas to win the Midwest Regional.
The matchup with Connecticut evoked fond memories for Jim Larrañaga, Miami’s avuncular 73-year-old coach. His previous trip to the Final Four came in 2006 with a Cinderella-in-sneakers George Mason team that knocked off top-seeded Connecticut in a regional final.
There would be no such memory-making moments for Larrañaga this time.
In fact, when Miami guard Nijel Pack was stranded for several minutes on the bench in the second half after he blew out a shoe, it might have been a sign. It took a of couple trips to the locker room for the equipment manager to find a shoe that fit.
Neither, it turns out, did a glass slipper.