Men's College Basketball

Huskies Outlast Crimson Tide 86-72, Heads Back to Championship Game


UConn center Donovan Clingan prepared to dunk over the outstretched arms of an unidentified Crimson Tide defender during Saturday’s NCAA Men’s Semifinal game at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

All season long UConn head coach Dan Hurley has had his team expecting to go up against stiff competition in the post-season. The first goal was winning the Big East championship, which they did, and then slicing their way through opponents with the aim of repeating as national champions.

The tournament so far had been easy for the Huskies. The won their first four games by an average of 28 point margins including a 91-52 win in the opening round to the Stetson Hatters and last Saturday’s 77-52 win over the Illinois Fighting Illini, which featured a 30-0 UConn run, mainly in the second half.

Hurley didn’t doubt at all that they would be facing serious competition, but might have been surprised that it took until Saturday’s NCAA Semifinal matchup against the fourth-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide for his top-ranked Huskies to see it.

Alabama forward Grant Nelson opened the scoring with a three-pointer, but UConn guard Stephon Castle answered with one of his own to tie the score 3-3. Castle scored a layup and then forward Alex Karaban was fouled by Crimson Tide guard Rylan Griffen. Karaban’s two free throws gave the Huskies a 7-3 edge with 17:55 left in the half.

It was a dog fight from the start as Griffen hit a three pointer which was answered by one from Castle. Nelson and UConn guard Cam Spencer exchanged shots.

Crimson Tide guard Aaron Estrada hit back-to-back shots including a three-pointer, guard Mark Sears connected on a jump shot, and Latrell Wrightsell Jr., hit a three-pointer in a 10-2 run that gave Alabama an 18-15 lead with 12:27 remaining in the half.

The Huskies answered with a 10-2 run of their own including dunks by center Donovan Clingan, forward Samson Johnson and guard Stephon Castle. UConn led 28-25 but Estrada nailed a three-pointer to tie it up 28-28 with 7:53 left in the half.

Alabama Crimson Tide forward Aaron Estrada shoots a jumper during Saturday’s NCAA Men’s Semifinal game versus UConn at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

For the rest of the half, the teams traded buckets, neither team really gaining much in the way of an advantage. When the first half ended, UConn led 44-40.

When the second half commenced, the teams didn’t trade baskets, they traded runs instead. Layups from Castle and Karaban put the Huskies up 48-40, but an Alabama 7-0 run with baskets from Estrada and Griffen made it a 48-47 game.

UConn then answered with a 7-0 run of their own with a Clingan jumper, Karaban three-pointer and dunk from Castle. The score was 55-47 in favor of the Huskies with 15:43 left on the clock. It was a lead they couldn’t hold.

Sears hit a three-pointer. UConn guard Tristen Newton fell on the floor, which caused a 5-4 fast break opportunity that ended with Nelson dunking over Clingan. Nelson then hit a jumper to pull Alabama to a one-point deficit. Two plays later and the game was tied 56-56 with 12:41 left on the clock.

Then UConn made their move. They clamped down on defense. Castle made two free throws and a jump shot. Johnson dunked. Karaban hit a layup. UConn was on a 9-2 run while Alabama faced a three minute long scoring drought.

Sears hit a jump shot to make the score 64-58 in favor of UConn, but Newton answered with a three-pointer. Sears made a layup but was fouled by Castle. The score was 67-61 after Sears made the free shot with 8:02 remaining.

Now UConn had the momentum and the clock on their side. Every move that the Crimson Tide made had an effective counter by the Huskies. The six point deficit would be the closest Alabama would come. UConn slowly pulled away with Clingan dunks and layups, three-pointers from Newton, Karaban and Spencer, and tough defense.

When the final buzzer sounded UConn won 86-72 and are now 33-0 this season when scoring more than 70 points.

UConn Huskies guard Stephon Castle attempts a layup during Saturday’s NCAA Men’s Semifinal game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Glendale Arizona’s State Farm Stadium. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

UConn went 31-for-62 (50.0 percent) from the field; 10-for-25 (40.0 percent) from three-point range; and 14-for-18 (77.8 percent) in free throw shooting. They turned the ball over four times leading to six Crimson Tide points.

“We felt like if we just kind of stayed into ‘em, just kept doing what we do, it sounds like coach talk,” said UConn head coach Dan Hurley. “Our identity is to be pretty relentless. We might not break you for 18 minutes, 25 minutes, but at some point if what we’re doing at both ends and on the backboard is at a high level, it just becomes hard for the other team to sustain it.”

Alabama went 26-for-58 (44.8 percent) from the field; 11-for-23 (47.8 percent) from three-point range; and 9-for-11 (81.8 percent) from the charity stripe. They committed eight turnovers that led to eight UConn points.

“We had to do a lot better job on a lot of things. But they imposed their will on a lot of teams. In some regards, they imposed their will on us tonight, especially with the pace of play. Kept getting our guys to push a little bit faster. Seemed like there was always bodies in front of us. They did a great job in transition,” said Alabama head coach Nate Oats. “We got a few transition opportunities, but not nearly like we’ve been used to, and not what we needed to beat a team like this. Obviously they do a great job keeping teams out of transition.”

The Huskies had a 38-26 edge in points-in-the-paint, and an 18-14 lead in second chance points.

“[I] thought we went over everything and chased them off the line, tried to funnel them into the midrange, even though it’s hard to do because they’re such great coaches,” said Hurley. “We knew it was going to be tough.”

UConn Huskies center Donovan Clingan dunks during Saturday’s NCAA Men’s Semifinal game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

UConn had all five starters in double-digits scoring. They were led by Stephon Castle’s 21 points. Donovan Clingan scored 18, Tristen Newton scored 12. Newton also led the team with nine assists. Alex Karaban and Cam Spencer each scored 14 points and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.

“Everyone came to UConn to try to be a part of history. We’re one step closer to our goal. But none of us in this locker room are satisfied. We know we have a lot of work to do, a big matchup on Monday,” said Clingan.

Alabama was led by 24 points from Mark Sears. Grant Nelson scored 19 points and Aaron Estrada pitched in for 13. Sears and Estrada each had three assists, which led the Crimson Tide, while Nelson pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds.

“I say they did a better job of running us off the three-point line [in the second half]. Even when we would try to create separation, they were right there to run us off the line. I’d say they did a great job of doing that,” said Sears. “We had turned the ball over, and they made us pay for it. We turned the ball over and they really capitalized off of it.”

UConn will now face the Purdue Boilermakers on Monday night in Phoenix for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. The Huskies are the No. 1 seed from the East Region and the Boilermakers are the No. 1 seed from the Midwest Region. Tipoff is at 9:20 p.m. ET from State Farm Stadium.

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