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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Huskies stay relaxed knowing pressure will begin on Friday against Iona in first round

    UConn head coach Dan Hurley wants his players to play with passion, but also stay relaxed when they play Iona in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

    Albany, N.Y. – Near the end of Thursday’s open practice at MVP Arena, UConn’s players took part in a fun half-court shot competition.

    After a bunch of misses, junior Adama Sanogo drained his attempt and received high-fives from his teammates. Then they posed for a team photo before jogging off the court.

    The Huskies looked like a relaxed, loose bunch the day before their NCAA tournament West Region opener against 13th-seeded Iona (4:30 p.m., TBS).

    “We’re really trying to enjoy the moment we’re in right now,” redshirt freshman Alex Karaban said. “We’ve worked hard for this moment. Coach (Dan Hurley) made it clear it’s hard to make it to March Madness, so we’ve got to enjoy it and take it all in.

    “And when it’s game time, just show up and be ready to play.”

    Pressure will hit the Huskies (25-8) prior to Friday’s tip.

    There’s pressure from being a heavy favorite as the No. 4 seed and a popular pick to reach the Final Four, pressure playing for a program with a rich postseason history still searching for its first NCAA win under Hurley after two straight first round exits, and pressure from playing against the upset-minded Gaels (27-7), who have nothing to lose as the underdog.

    If the Huskies handle all that, they have a great shot at reaching the second round for the first time since 2016.

    Being too uptight contributed to UConn’s demise in last year’s upset loss to New Mexico State in the first round.

    Hurley has been stressing to his players to enjoy the experience.

    “The message with this group is just to play to our identity, be who we have been the whole year,” Hurley said. “We don’t need an extraordinary performance. We don’t need a Kemba moment from anyone. We’ve got a deep team. We’ve got a strong team.

    “Enjoy the open practice. Enjoy the media. Enjoy everything that comes along with being invited to this exclusive tournament.”

    UConn has a talent advantage over Iona, which is riding a 14-game winning streak. And the Huskies, who rank second in the country in rebounding margin, should be able to control the boards.

    But the Huskies, who’ve been turnover-prone at times this season, will have to deal with a high pressure defense that forces 14.5 turnovers per game.

    Iona also has a Hall of Fame coach in Rick Pitino who’s led three different teams — Providence, Louisville and Kentucky — to the Final Four and won two national titles. The Gaels play fast and rely on balanced scoring that features three players averaging 15 points or more, including Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year Walter Clayton, Jr., a sophomore guard.

    The Gaels are 0-14 in their previous 14 NCAA trips but, as a No. 15 seed, only lost to Alabama by 13 in their last appearance in 2021.

    “It’s anybody’s ballgame,” Pitino said. “We’ve got great respect for Connecticut. They’re not a number four seed. We all know who have watched them, they could go to a Final Four and win a national championship. They’re so deep. They’re so talented.

    “And we’re a pretty good team as well.”

    So, both UConn and Iona believe they are holding a winning hand.

    No surprise there.

    It might come down to if UConn can handle the pressure that will be on its shoulders.

    The Huskies believe they’re ready.

    “We work all year long in practice and in games to get to this point,” said junior Andre Jackson, who attended nearby Albany Academy and whose family lives a few miles away from the arena. “This is definitely the biggest stage, but at the end of the day, we’re just going to stick to our identity and stick to what we’ve done all season.

    “I think that’s good enough to get us some wins in this tournament. We’re one of the better teams, for sure.”

    When asked if Hurley feels the pressure to win in March, he responded that coaching is a pressure business.

    “You feel pressure, but you feel pressure the whole year,” he said. “You know what’s on the line. You want to honor the season we’ve had. I think probably the most pressure comes from knowing that you have a team that potentially can do some special things this month.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

    NCAA WEST REGION: No. 4 UCONN vs. No. 13 IONA

    Location: MVP Arena, Albany, N.Y.

    Tip: 4:30 p.m. (TBS)

    Records: UConn 25-8, Iona 27-7

    Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 sr. guard Tristen Newton (10.2 pts, 4.2 rebs, 4.6 assists), 6-6 jr. guard Andre Jackson (6.7 pts, 6.3 rebs, 4.3 assists), 6-5 so. guard Jordan Hawkins (16.1 pts, 3.9 rebs), 6-8 r-fr. forward Alex Karaban (9.7 pts, 4.3 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Adama Sanogo (16.8 pts, 7.3 rebs)

    Iona, 6-4 grad guard Berrick Jeanlouis (7.8 pts, 4.2 rebs), 6-3 so. Walter Clayton, Jr. (16.9 pts, 4.3 rebs, 3.2 assists), Daniss Jenkins (15.6 pts, 4.4 rebs, 4.9 rebs), Nelly Junior Joseph (15.1 pts, 9.4 rebs), 7-0 sr. center Osborn Shema (7.2 pts, 4.8 rebs)

    Noteworthy: UConn shooting for first NCAA tourney win since 2016, Iona its first ever NCAA win. …. Series: UConn leads, 4-1, winning last meeting 80-62 in December 2019 in Storrs. Iona’s only win came in 1984. … Teams previously met once in postseason, with UConn posting 71-66 win in 1997 NIT first round. … Huskies won nine of 11. Gaels won 14 straight, last losing Jan. 27 versus Siena at MVP Arena. … Top reserve: 6-1 so. guard Anton Brookshire (4.2). … Iona scores 76.3 points per game, allows 65. … Since the Albany-based arena opened in 1990, Gaels have played there 67 times, going 36-40. … Iona is No. 4 in the country at 6.8 blocks per game. … Sixteenth NCAA appearance for Iona, 36th for UConn (59-32). … This is UConn’s eighth time playing in the West Region, reaching the Final Four four times, winning three national titles. … Huskies 0-1 as No. 4 seed in program history, losing a first round game to San Diego in 2008. …. Hot: UConn’s bench averaged 26 points the last two games. Cold: Huskies 13 for 20 from the foul line in last two games. … Sanogo, Jackson and Nahiem Alleyne only Huskies with previous NCAA experience. Alleyne averaged 16 points in two games while at Virginia Tech. … UConn finished the regular season ranked 10th in the country. … Up next: Friday’s winner meets either No. 5 Saint Mary’s or No. 12 Virginia Commonwealth on Sunday.

    – Gavin Keefe

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