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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    UConn men pull away in the second half to beat Iona

    UConn's Adama Sanogo (21) drives against Iona's Silas Sunday (33) in the second half of Friday’s first-round game in the NCAA tournament in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
    UConn's Hassan Diarra, center, drives against Iona's Daniss Jenkins, left, in the first half of Friday’s NCAA tournament first-round game in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
    UConn's center Donovan Clingan celebrates with fans after beating Iona 87-63 in a first-round game in the NCAA tournament in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

    Albany, N.Y. – UConn carried the heavy burden of NCAA tournament failures into Friday’s West Region first round game.

    The weight increased when the fourth-seeded Huskies trailed by two at halftime.

    Then they unloaded it all on No. 13 Iona.

    They crushed the upset hopes of the Gaels with a dazzling second-half performance on the way to an 87-63 victory before a pro-UConn crowd at MVP Arena. They earned the program’s first March Madness win since 2016.

    “Coming into this game, we had a little bit of pressure on us because we care a lot,” junior Adama Sanogo said. “We want to do well. We didn’t want to do the same thing as the last two years. … But we still have stuff to do.”

    It also was coach Dan Hurley’s first postseason win in his five seasons at UConn after falling in the first round two straight seasons.

    “I was just happy to see us on a big stage be able to transfer what we’ve been doing in the regular season…,” Hurley said. “We were able to transfer that into the first round of the NCAA tournament, which I’m excited about. And I’m excited for the players. We get a chance to play even a bigger game.”

    UConn (26-8) advances to face No. 5 Saint Mary’s (27-7), a 63-51 winner over No. 12 Virginia Commonwealth University, in second round action Sunday. Game time is 6:10 p.m.

    Junior Andre Jackson, who grew up in the Albany area and played at Albany Academy, had his usual solid all-around game, finishing with 10 points, seven assists and five rebounds while sophomore Jordan Hawkins overcame a slow start to chip in 13 points.

    But the center duo of Sanogo (a season-high 28 points, 13 rebounds) and freshman backup Donovan Clingan (12 points, nine rebounds, two blocks) did the most damage.

    “When we’ve been at our best, our centers have devastated the other team,” Hurley said.

    A force inside, Sanogo dominated the second half during which UConn outscored Iona, 50-24. He helped fuel a 17-4 run coming out of the locker room that turned a 39-37 deficit into a 54-43 lead. He had 22 points overall after intermission.

    Hawkins, who missed all six shots and went scoreless in the first half, ignited the spark on the first possession. He converted a four-point play to push the Huskies in front for good, 41-39.

    “I wasn’t really down on myself at all,” Hawkins said about his slow start. “I’ve got great teammates and great coaches and great support staff that help me through tough times, so I wasn’t worried at all.”

    Finally playing with a sense of desperation, the Huskies took off.

    Jackson set up Sanogo for a fast-break basket and Hawkins buried another three. Sanogo scored eight straight points to give UConn its biggest lead thus far at 54-43 with 14:59 remaining.

    UConn also cranked up the defensive intensity, cooling off a once-sizzling Iona. The Gaels shot an icy 25 percent (6 for 24) from the field in the second half.

    “Overall, we felt the desperation we had to play with,” Jackson said. “It was either us or them that had to go home, so we had to put them away. We knew defense was going to be able to do the job.”

    The Huskies never let up, leading by as many as 24 points. They rallied from a halftime deficit to win for the first time this season.

    For a fast-paced first 20 minutes, UConn looked in trouble.

    The two teams traded leads but neither could seize control of the game.

    Iona played with confidence and made seven of its first 10 field goals, putting UConn on its heels.

    But Hurley wasn’t worried.

    “They were making tough shots,” Hurley said. “We felt great at halftime.”

    Eventually, the Huskies used their superior depth and strong inside game to wear down the Gaels. They handled a pressure defense, committing only nine turnovers, assisted on 24 of 32 field goals, controlled the boards (45-29) and shot 60 percent in the second half.

    Their reserves contributed a valuable 26 points.

    “Big time effort,” Hurley said. “Bench was great. Starters were great. Obviously, a big win.”

    Heading into second round action, UConn will be a bit lighter without the burden of past first round failures.

    “Definitely it feels like a weight off the shoulders,” Jackson said. “It feels like we got past a marker that we set. It definitely feels like we took a step forward, and we’re ready to move on to the next one.”

    They ended the Gaels’ 14-game winning streak.

    “I want to congratulate Connecticut,” Iona coach Rick Pitino said. “They played a great second half. They physically dominated us at the five spot. The first half was just about as well as we’ve played all year, but the second half was about as poor as we’ve played. But that’s due to Connecticut’s defense and offense.

    “They’ve got all the metrics to win a national championship.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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