HOUSTON — UConn assistant coach Tom Moore embraced guard Tristen Newton in a big hug as he walked toward the bench. Dan Hurley high-fived his players as they jogged off the floor. The Huskies’ fan section was the loudest it had been all night.
It wasn’t the end of the game. It wasn’t even the end of the first half. There was still 2:55 left in the first half, but the Huskies had opened up a 16-point lead on San Diego State and had all the momentum.
At that point, the final outcome seemed decided and the second half, for all intents and purposes, looked to be a coronation. San Diego State did cut UConn’s lead all the way down to five — but UConn promptly responded with a knockout punch to close out one of the most dominant runs in NCAA tournament history with an 76-59 win over the Aztecs.
The Huskies have now won five national championships in the last 24 years, under three different coaches, with Jim Calhoun leading the program in 1999, 2004 and 2011, Kevin Ollie in 2014 and now Hurley. If 2011 was the Kemba Walker year and 2014 was the Shabazz Napier year, 2023 will be remembered for Adama Sanogo.
Sanogo, a junior center, finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, after averaging 20.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in the first five games of the tournament.
San Diego State hit its first two 3-pointers of the game, which provided the Aztecs some hope they would be able to keep up with UConn offensively. Through four minutes, San Diego State was getting good shots, going basket-for-basket with UConn — and also forced three Newton turnovers at the other end. But after going up 10-6 with 16:32 remaining in the first half, the Aztecs went cold.
They wouldn’t make another field goal for more than 11 minutes, when Darrion Trammell hit a jumper. By that point, San Diego State had missed 14 straight shots from the field and UConn had opened up a double-digit lead.
All season, the Aztecs had been able to impose its will on opponents. UConn didn’t let that happen. The Huskies were opportunistic in transition in the first half, with Newton and Andre Jackson consistently pushing the ball up the floor and Sanogo getting early position on the block against an unsettled San Diego State defense. The Huskies had six steals and forced nine turnovers, turning them into 11 points.
Newton used his size advantage over Trammell to create for himself and teammates in the first half, while Sanogo seemingly got a touch on nearly every UConn possession.
At the other end, UConn’s sheer size and length at the rim caused problems for San Diego State all half. Sanogo and Donovan Clingan contested everything around the basket, forcing the Aztecs to miss all five of its layup attempts in the first 20 minutes. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, San Diego State was 1-for-11 on contested paint shots in the first half. In the first five games of the NCAA tournament, the Aztecs shot nearly 50% on contested shots in the paint.
UConn pushed its lead all the way to 16 points late in the first half, but San Diego State was able to get it down to 12 at the break.
San Diego State came out of halftime with significantly more aggressiveness, especially on the offensive end and on the offensive glass. It prompted Hurley to yell, “Wake up! Wake up!” to his players after one particularly lackadaisical defensive possession.
For the first 11 minutes of the second half, it felt eerily similar to Miami’s second half against the Huskies on Saturday night. Constantly flirting with a comeback, never quite getting over the hump to put real heat on UConn.
But then San Diego State went on a 9-0 run to cut a 15-point lead down to six, and UConn was under the most pressure it had been in the entire NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, San Diego State was in a familiar position; the Aztecs had overcome deficits of eight points or more in three straight NCAA tournament games entering Monday.
One issue for San Diego State, however, was fouls. UConn entered the bonus with more than 13 minutes remaining in the game and scored 10 straight points from the free throw line during one stretch.
The Aztecs got the lead down to as few as five points, but UConn found Jordan Hawkins off a curl for an open 3-point to push the lead back to eight. Jaedon LeDee then missed the front end of a one-and-one, Newton buried two free throws and the Huskies were back up by double-digits. A 16-4 run put the game out of reach.
For Hurley, Monday night was the culmination of a five-year process that began in a different conference, with an apathetic fan base and a below .500 season.
Back in the 2019-20 season, when UConn was still in the American, the Huskies were mired in another January swoon. They had lost three of four games, then went to Villanova and blew a late lead en route to a 61-55 defeat.
Hurley couldn’t hide his frustration in the postgame news conference.
“People better get us now. That’s all,” Hurley said, a quote that will now be entrenched in Storrs lore. “You better get us now, because it’s coming.”
Just over three years later, not a single player who played in that game for UConn is still on the roster. Led by a veteran core of Sanogo, Jackson and Hawkins, with the right transfers and freshmen mixed in, Hurley has taken the Huskies from the AAC to the Big East, from zero NCAA tournament wins since 2016 to the national championship.
Said Hurley on Sunday: “These guys have kind of brought this program all the way back.”
Monday night erased the “kind of.” UConn is back among the nation’s powerhouses.