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UConn pulls away from Alabama late to book return trip to title game

In Sports
April 07, 2024

UConn is a win away from back-to-back national championships.

The Huskies pulled away from a pesky Alabama team late in the second half of their Final Four matchup on Saturday to dispatch the Crimson Tide 86-72 and set up a meeting with Purdue for the national title on Monday.

UConn led by four at halftime and didn’t incinerate the Tide after halftime like it did Illinois in the Elite Eight. Instead, UConn weathered multiple pushes by the Crimson Tide at the start of the second half before Alabama’s 3-point shooting regressed to the mean.

The Huskies opened up their first double-digit lead of the game with 4:36 to go when Cam Spencer gave UConn a 73-63 lead on a free-throw line jumper. A minute later, Alex Karaban delivered the knockout blow with a 3-pointer that extended UConn’s lead to 11.

After Alabama’s Mark Sears cut the lead to eight again with a 3-pointer of his own, Donovan Clingan served as an eraser on the defensive end with a block and the clincher on the offensive end.

The big plays from Spencer, Karaban and Clingan all came while Stephon Castle was on the bench with four fouls. The freshman was the Huskies’ leading scorer on Saturday night but picked up three fouls in the second half and spent the waning moments of the game on the bench as his veteran teammates played pivotal roles.

Castle finished with 21 points, while Clingan had 18 and Karaban and Spencer each scored 14. Clingan also finished with four blocks while Karaban and Spencer each had eight rebounds.

Alabama cools off in the second half

Alabama was a remarkable 8 of 11 from behind the arc in the first half yet still trailed by four at halftime. Two things were true at once: Alabama gave UConn its biggest test of the NCAA tournament and its first-half shooting performance was simply unsustainable.

Case in point: the threes that were nearly automatic for Alabama in the first half became almost impossible in the second half. Alabama was just 3 of 12 in the final 20 minutes and finished the game 11 of 23 from behind the 3-point line.

But despite the cold shooting in the second half, Alabama pushed UConn until it ran out of gas. The Huskies tried to run away with the game twice in the opening minutes after halftime. Each time, Alabama responded with a 7-0 run of its own and even had the game tied at 56-56.

The Tide never took the lead, however. And it soon stopped having answers too. UConn outscored Alabama 9-2 after the game was tied with 12:41 to go and the Crimson Tide never got within six points again the rest of the way.

Mark Sears finished with a game-high 24 points, while Grant Nelson had 19 points and 15 rebounds. Nelson also produced the highlight of the night when he went right at Clingan and threw it down — literally — over UConn’s big man.

A matchup of this season’s titans

UConn seeks to be the first team since Florida in 2006 and 2007 to win back-to-back men’s NCAA tournaments. And to match Florida’s feat, the Huskies will have to beat their only rival for the title of best team in basketball during the 2023-24 season.

Before UConn took down Alabama, Purdue beat NC State. The Boilermakers and Huskies have been the two best teams in college basketball all season as the stage is set for what could be an epic title game.

The only big man having a better NCAA tournament than Clingan is Purdue’s Zach Edey. The Naismith Player of the Year was dominant again against NC State as he posted his sixth straight tournament game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Clingan will be the best defender he’s faced all season long. It will be fascinating to see those two go head-to-head.

Both teams seem evenly matched on the perimeter too. The Huskies have the top-ranked offense in the nation according to KenPom.com’s advanced metrics and Purdue is just behind in third. Both teams also rank in the top 12 of KenPom’s defensive ratings.

As UConn goes for back-to-back titles, Purdue is hoping to join Virginia with a national title a season after losing to a No. 16 seed. The Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2018 and promptly won the title in 2019. A season ago, Purdue was the second No. 1 seed to lose in the first round when it fell to Fairleigh Dickinson.

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