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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Saint Mary’s stands between UConn and a trip to Sweet 16

    UConn head coach Dan Hurley had reason to smile during the Huskies’ 87-63 win over Iona in Friday’s NCAA tournament opener at MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y. The No. 4 Huskies play No. 5 Saint Mary’s in the second round on Sunday. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

    Albany, N.Y. – Dan Hurley stood in the UConn locker room on Saturday afternoon, waiting to head down the hall of MVP Arena to his press conference.

    The night before, Hurley’s cell phone blew up with congratulatory text messages following a convincing first round win on Friday, his first NCAA tournament victory in five seasons as head coach.

    Hurley was asked if he’s able to enjoy the March Madness experience.

    “Getting out of the first round and getting to the next bigger game, I think it becomes more joyous now as opposed to relief,” he said.

    There’ll be more joy if fourth-seeded UConn (26-8) can beat No. 5 Saint Mary’s (27-7) on Sunday (6:10 p.m., TNT) in the program’s first trip to the second round in seven years.

    Saint Mary’s is sort of a mystery opponent to UConn, at least to the players who likely never saw the West Coast Conference power play on television during the regular season unless they’re a night owl or a battling case of insomnia.

    They’ve taken a crash course.

    “We started watching a lot of film on them recently,” redshirt freshman Alex Karaban said. “They come out of an underrated WCC conference, and they’re (regular) season champions. We know they’re a tough team. We’re going to be in for a battle. They were close with a majority of their opponents throughout the season. So we can’t take them lightly.”

    Hurley compares Saint Mary’s to Villanova.

    “These guys have a great brand,” Hurley said. “We compare them to Villanova in terms of how good they are. They’re that type of opponent in terms of how they stress you out on both ends of the court. So these guys know that, like us, they’re a team that can legitimately go a long way in the tournament and one of us is going to go home.”

    In case the Huskies need an added reminder about Saint Mary’s talent, they can ask graduate guard Joey Calcaterra.

    During his days at University of San Diego, Calcaterra competed in the same conference as the Gaels, playing them them six times. Saint Mary's is located in Moraga, Calif.

    “Our coaching staff knows how good Saint Mary’s is, we’re just trying to get the rest of the guys to come along,” Calcaterra said. “But I’ve definitely seen it over the years. I’m going to help instill that in our guys and just know that we’ve got a tough opponent on our hands.”

    The challenges are many.

    The Huskies will be playing a well-coached, experienced, defensive-minded opponent that prefers a walk-in-the-park type tempo as opposed to a track meet.

    Led by WCC Defensive Player of the Year Logan Johnson, the Gaels allow just 59.9 points per game, ranking fourth in the country in scoring defense. Johnson, a fifth-year guard, also is the team’s leading scorer at 14.6 points per game, followed by freshman guard Aidan Mahaney’s 14.1.

    The Gaels reached the second round for the second straight year by beating No. 12 Virginia Commonwealth, 63-51.

    They battled fellow WCC member Gonzaga, a No. 3 seed in this year’s tourney, three times this season, going 1-2. Facing talented 6-foot-10 center Drew Timme was great preparation for playing UConn’s Adama Sanogo, who’s coming off a monster 28-point, 13 rebound game, according to Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett.

    Mitchell Saxen, a 6-10, 242-pound junior, provides inside muscle and scoring for the Gaels.

    “It absolutely helps us,” Bennett said. “I think Timme is the best center in the country. … We don’t play against anybody that’s tougher to deal with than Gonzaga offensively, so it helps us prepare for the NCAA tournament. You’re going to see teams like that that have a Sanogo.”

    As far as UConn goes, its focus remains the same no matter the opponent. Stick to its identity of aggressive defense, relentless rebounding and unselfish offensive play.

    The Huskies will try to take advantage of its superior athleticism, size and depth.

    They’ll be the favorite for the second straight game and continue to be a popular pick to advance to the Final Four.

    “We know we’ve got the tools to do it,” sophomore Jordan Hawkins said. “We’ve got the confidence as well. … At the end of the day, we’ve got to take care of ourselves and have that mindset for ourselves, and we do.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

    NO. 4 UCONN vs. NO. 5 SAINT MARY’S

    Location: MVP Arena, Albany, N.Y.

    Tip: 6:10 p.m. (TNT)

    Records: UConn 26-8, Saint Mary’s 27-7

    Last game: UConn beat No. 13 Iona, 87-63, Friday; Saint Mary’s defeated No. 12 Virginia Commonwealth, 63-51, Friday

    Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 sr. guard Tristen Newton (10 pts, 4.2 rebounds 4.6 assists), 6-6 jr. guard Andre Jackson (6.8 pts, 6.3 rebs, 4.3 assists), 6-5 so. guard Jordan Hawkins (16 pts, 3.9 rebs), 6-8 r-fr. forward Alex Karaban (9.6 pts, 4.3 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Adama Sanogo (17.1 pts, 7.4 rebs)

    Saint Mary’s, 6-2 sr. guard Logan Johnson (14.6 pts, 4.9 rebs, 3.6 assists), 6-3 fr. guard Aidan Mahaney (14.1 pts) 6-7 sr. Alex Ducas (12.6 pts, 4.4 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Kyle Bowen (5.2. Pts, 7.1 rebs), 6-10 jr. center Mitchell Saven (11.8 pts, 7.8 rebs)

    Noteworthy: UConn owns a 17-4 record in second round games. Saint Mary’s advanced to the second round for the 2nd straight season. … Series: UConn won the only other meeting, 89-73, on Dec. 17, 2006 in Hartford. … Saint Mary’s tied Gonzaga for first place in the West Coast Conference at 14-2. Gaels had four players on the All-WCC team, including defensive player of the year Johnson and first team picks Johnson, Saxen, Mahaney. … Saint Mary’s fourth best scoring defense in NCAA, allowing 60.1 points per game. … Top reserve: 6-4 so. guard Augustas Marciulionis (5.8 points). … Saint Mary’s Logan Johnson on playing before a pro-UConn crowd: “We’re not worried about it. It’s a road game. … We’re going to make sure UConn knows who we are.” … Stat to watch: rebounding. UConn 2nd in nation on rebounding margin, Saint Mary’s ninth at 7.2. … Huskies 1-1 vs. WCC teams in NCAA tourney, beating Gonzaga, 67-62, in 1999 Elite Eight and losing to San Diego, 70-69 (OT) in 2008 first round. … Hot: UConn’s bench averaging 26 points in the last three games. Cold: Newton 3 for 15 from the field and 11 points in the last two games. … UConn finished No. 10 in the final AP poll, Saint Mary’s No. 19. … Up next: Winner advances to the Sweet Sixteen in Las Vegas.

    – Gavin Keefe

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