The San Juan Daily Star
UConn wins fifth NCAA title by overwhelming San Diego State
By Billy Witz
The Connecticut men’s basketball team has endured many tribulations in recent weeks. The Huskies walked into soiled hotel rooms when they arrived in Las Vegas for their first games in the NCAA tournament. Their bus was broken into while they were at practice. And Jordan Hawkins, their star guard, was curled up on the floor of his hotel room on Friday, stricken with illness and complaining about some calamari.
As for difficulties on the basketball court?
Those were trifling matters for the Huskies, who, after blitzing their way to the tournament’s championship game, showed they also possessed a rock-solid chin and a cool hand in turning back San Diego State, 76-59, to win their fifth title in the past 25 years.
This wasn’t another freewheeling romp but a grinding effort in which the Huskies relied on their defense to take control before making enough plays down the stretch — and being near perfect at the free-throw line, making 21 of 23 in the second half — to repel the game but scattershot Aztecs.
Tristen Newton scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead Connecticut, which also got 17 points and 10 rebounds from Adama Sanogo, who was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four in Houston. Hawkins added 16 points — including a critical 3-pointer that stymied San Diego State.
With 30 seconds remaining, coach Dan Hurley removed his starters, greeting each one with a bearhug as they returned to the bench. When the final buzzer sounded, Newton jumped off the edge of the elevated court and into the arms of family members wearing his No. 2 jersey.
San Diego State, which had never before advanced past the round of 16, was trying to replicate what Kansas did a year ago, rallying from 15 points down in the second half to claim a championship. But the Aztecs just did not have enough offense, shooting 32.2% from the field and missing 14 consecutive shots in the first half, when the Huskies seized control.
The Huskies looked nothing like a team that finished fourth in the Big East Conference during the regular season. In their march to the national championship, they won their six tournament games by 24, 15, 23, 28, 13 and 17 points.
“The group had a lot of confidence for how we played the majority of the season,” Hurley said on the court after the game. “We knew we were the best team in the tournament going in, and we just had to play like it.”
While Newton contributed the most points and Hawkins delivered the biggest bucket, the Huskies at both ends of the court revolved — as they have all tournament — around Sanogo, who is observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and does not eat food or drink water from dawn to sundown.
After sunset, he eats protein-packed meals, hibachi steak and chicken with fruit, and he rises around 5 a.m. to eat another meal before going back to sleep. On game nights, he subsists on lighter fare: coconut water and fruit.
“I just want to say anything is possible,” said Sanogo, who grew up in Mali, and whose ambition was to further his education in France until an uncle living in the United States suggested that he was enough of a basketball prospect to come.
The victory was seen in UConn’s locker room as restoring the program to its rightful place in the college basketball universe. Since the last title nine years ago, Kevin Ollie, a former Husky himself, was fired and then filed suit to win back salary, getting $14.9 million through an arbitrator’s ruling and a settlement with the university. And until last month, Connecticut had not won a tournament game since 2016.
Many of the players spoke of a desire to uphold the standard that comes at the entrance to the basketball facility, where the first thing you see are the 11 women’s championship trophies and, until Monday, the four won by the men.
There are also mementos of all-Americans and high draft picks.
“That’s big shoes to fill,” said Andre Jackson Jr., the team’s leader, nodding toward the other side of the locker room, where former Connecticut stars Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor and Rudy Gay were holding court with reporters. “As a basketball player, if you don’t walk in there and feel inspired by that, I don’t know what’s going to inspire you.”
The title also served as validation for Hurley, who has spent his basketball life cast in the shadow of his older brother, Bobby, a star at Duke when Dan was a role player at Seton Hall, and his father, Bob, a decorated high school coach at St. Anthony in Jersey City, New Jersey.
A little more than a decade ago, Dan Hurley was coaching at St. Benedict’s Prep in his home state.
As much as he can be profane and combustible along the sideline, biting his lip so hard when he screamed for a foul against Gonzaga that he drew blood, he has not been afraid to reveal his vulnerabilities during the tournament. He said he “sucked” when he first started coaching in high school, and revealed that he had taken up painting at the suggestion of his wife, while acknowledging that he is no Picasso.
The seeds of Connecticut’s celebration were planted last March, after the Huskies were upset in the first round of the tournament by 12th-seeded New Mexico State. Hurley convened his three cornerstones — Sanogo, Jackson and Hawkins — and promised them he would put a better roster around them, dotted with perimeter shooters who wouldn’t shrink in big moments. Among them was Newton, who played the last three years at East Carolina.
Basketball observers were not impressed. The Huskies began the season unranked.
When they won their first 14 games, including a rout of Alabama, the Huskies had a touchstone they could return to. And fittingly enough, they did so one more time late Monday.
After Joey Calcaterra buried a 3-pointer to put Connecticut ahead, 56-41, the Aztecs mustered a final charge. Jaedon LeDee, a chiseled forward playing in his hometown, scored a pair of baskets in the lane that prompted a Huskies timeout.
Hawkins left a jumper short, Keshad Johnson knocked in a 3-pointer from the wing, Darrion Trammell followed that with a steal and a layup, and San Diego State fans brought the cavernous arena to life, having crawled to 56-50.
The Aztecs — who had shown their mettle in the tournament, trailing Alabama by 9, Creighton by 8 and Florida Atlantic by 14 on their way to the title game — envisioned reeling the Huskies in.
“It was that March feeling — wow, this is happening,” said Trammell, whose free throw with 1.2 seconds left had beaten Creighton in the South Regional final. “We’re going to be that team that overcomes another deficit, and we can come out and win this game.”
The Aztecs would close to 60-55 with less than six minutes left, but Hawkins, curling off a series of screens near the top of the arc, unfurled his silky shot, swishing a 3-pointer that kept San Diego State at bay by starting a 9-0 run.
“Big shot by a great player,” Trammell said, grimacing at the thought.
Said Hurley: “I thought the group was a little frustrated that we hadn’t put them away, and they focused on execution.”
It was an orderly ending for this unpredictable, hugger-mugger of a tournament.