Heading into the Final Four, UConn won each of its first four NCAA tournament games by double digits.
Make that five.
The Huskies opened up a 9-0 lead against Miami in the national semifinal on Saturday and kept the gas down through the final buzzer in a 72-59 win. They advance to face San Diego State in Monday’s national championship game. As they’ve done throughout the tournament, the Huskies controlled almost every aspect of the game.
All-Big East guard Jordan Hawkins started after a stomach bug limited him in practice and left his status for tip-off in the air. He set the tone with a 3-pointer on UConn’s first possession. All-Big East center Adam Sanogo then hit two more from long distance to extend UConn’s lead to nine. This is a player who spends the bulk of his minutes in the paint and entered Saturday having hit just 17 3-pointers all season.
The hot start spelled trouble for Miami, but the resilient Hurricanes didn’t let the game get away from them. Not yet, at least. They answered with a 9-2 run midway through the first half to cut their deficit to 16-13. A Nigel Pack 3-pointer tied the game at 19-19. But UConn comes at its opponents in waves.
It responded with an 8-0 run to take a 27-19 lead while holding the Hurricanes scoreless for 4:41. A Miami team that shot 48.4% from the field for the season repeatedly met resistance at the rim from Sanogo and 7-2 freshman reserve Donovan Clingan. In eight first-half minutes Clingan altered shots at the rim, blocked a Pack layup and broke up an alley-oop attempt in a possession that ended in a Hurricanes turnover.
On offense, the Huskies hit from inside and out and closed the half with an Alex Karaban 3-pointer that beat the buzzer.
The shot extended UConn’s lead to 37-24 and sent Miami into halftime with its lowest first-half output of the season. ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong shot 1 of 6 from the field in the half.
Miami had been here before. It trailed Texas by 13 points in the second half of its Elite Eight win last weekend. But UConn is not Texas. Sanogo opened up the second half with a pair of layups to extend the Huskies lead to 41-24.
The Hurricanes put up a fight with a 7-0 run that it extended to 15-4 with a Wong 3-pointer to cut their deficit to 53-45. But UConn answered yet again with a 5-0 run thanks to a Clingan put-back and a Hawkins 3-pointer. The Hurricanes continually threatened to make things close, but UConn never let them back within eight points.
Making matters worse for the Hurricanes, Pack missed sat in the second half because he had an issue with one of his shoes. The Hurricanes didn’t have a replacement pair ready to go near the bench, and he spent nearly five minutes on the bench as the equipment staff tried to sort things out.
But Pack’s shoe isn’t to blame for Miami’s loss. That honor belong wholly to UConn. The Huskies shot 49.1% from the field and 34.6% (9 of 26) from 3-point distance. They assisted on 19 of their 28 made field goals. When they missed shots, they attacked the glass. The nation’s third-best offensive rebounding team turned 13 of 29 misses into second chances via offensive rebounds.
Sanogo led the way again in a 21-point, 10-rebound, two-block effort. He entered the game shooting 67% from the field in the tournament and improved the torrid pace with a 9-of-11 effort from the field against Miami. Hawkins picked his spots and looked no worse for his stomach bug in a 13-point effort while shooting 3 of 7 from 3-point distance. Clingan’s impact in the post was felt well beyond his four-point, six-rebound, one-block effort in 12 minutes.
UConn’s defense limited Miami to 38.2% shooting from the field while the Huskies outrebounded the Hurricanes, 40-31. Wong played better in the second half and finished with 15 point on a 4-of-10 shooting night. Miami defense forced 15 UConn turnovers to help keep the Huskies from completely running away with the game.
But the game was never in doubt, and both teams benched their starters for the final minutes with the outcome in hand. UConn advances to play Monday night for the program’s fifth national championship.