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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Hurley instills confidence in his players, helping fuel UConn’s run to the NCAA Sweet 16

    UConn head coach Dan Hurley congratulates Tristen Newton (2) after Newton hit a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to give the Huskies a 31-30 lead on their way to a 70-55 win over Saint Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday night in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

    Before leaving the court at halftime Sunday, coach Dan Hurley waited near the UConn bench for Tristen Newton.

    An animated Hurley was pumped for his senior point guard and let him know it.

    After trailing for nearly the entire first half in the NCAA tournament West Region second round game against Saint Mary’s in Albany, N.Y., Newton’s basket handed fourth-seeded UConn a one-point lead and provided his team some valuable momentum.

    Hurley rarely misses an opportunity in a game, practice or just in an off-court conversation to instill confidence in his players, as he’s done throughout his five seasons in Storrs while rebuilding the program back to an elite level.

    It’s Hurley’s belief in his players that makes them feel they can run through a concrete wall.

    “He’s just always giving us confidence as players, always telling us how great of a player we are,” redshirt freshman Alex Karaban said Sunday. “When you hear that from coach Hurley, that’s truly something special. Whether you’re having an off night or a great game, he’s always going to tell you you’re one hell of a player that without you we wouldn’t have won.”

    With their fiery coach backing them, UConn’s confidence and level of play has soared in recent weeks, especially after convincing March Madness wins over No. 13 Iona (87-63) and No. 5 Saint Mary’s (70-55).

    It’s the first time that the Huskies have opened NCAA tournament play with two double digits wins since the 2011 national championship season.

    UConn (27-8) will face No. 8 Arkansas (22-13) at 7:15 p.m. on Thursday (Ch.3) in Las Vegas in the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance in nine years.

    The Huskies are playing a lethal brand of basketball. They’ve won 11 of their last 13 games, their only two losses to NCAA tourney teams in Marquette and Creighton by a combined five points.

    “Our confidence is through the roof right now,” Karaban said. “We haven’t had a blow-out loss in a while. We were hot going into the Big East (tournament) and we just want to keep building off the momentum.”

    Hurley is behind UConn’s surge.

    The Huskies have improved every season since Hurley’s hiring in March 2018.

    They made the program’s first NCAA tourney trip in five years in 2021. They returned again last season and suffered a second straight first round loss.

    This season, Hurley finally had a roster full of players that he recruited. The Huskies had the talent to succeed but needed to develop a mindset necessary to survive in Hurley’s demanding and intense basketball world.

    “That really was grown from coach Hurley,” junior Andre Jackson said. “If you’re on the court, you’ve got to be tough, especially tough-minded because he’s going to try and break you. You’ve got to be mentally and physically tough.

    “Every single day, he’s testing a guy’s character and he’s testing your will.”

    The previous two postseasons tested Hurley.

    Realizing the Huskies were too uptight in those games, contributing to the early exits, Hurley made some adjustments. This March, he emphasized enjoying the moment.

    The Huskies finally unloaded that burden Friday on Iona, helping Hurley get his first NCAA win as a UConn’s head coach.

    They are playing with joy and enthusiasm.

    “Coach makes us ready for the moment,” junior Adama Sanogo said. “This is the most pressure of the year. … The last couple of years, March Madness was not good for us. Coach makes sure we’re not thinking about that too much, and he makes sure we’re understanding that this is a different team and this is one of the best teams he ever coached and makes sure we’re confident.”

    Sanogo benefitted from such advice against Iona in the first round.

    After being reminded to calm down and relax after struggling in the first half, Sanogo responded, scoring 22 of his season-high 28 points. He’s had the best two back-to-back games of his career, averaging 26 points and 11.5 rebounds while converting 24 of 33 field goal attempts.

    Second-half surges enabled UConn to run away from Iona and Saint Mary’s, outscoring both by a combined 40 points after intermission.

    Hurley didn’t take credit when asked about those dazzling runs, pointing to his players responding on the big stage.

    “There’s been some times they’ve played horrible in the second half, and I think I’ve said something great (at halftime),” Hurley said. “This is about this time of year, having players that step up. … I’m no halftime guru.”

    His players would disagree.

    They feed off Hurley’s relentless energy, passion and drive.

    “He’s a great emotional leader, somebody that you can really follow,” Jackson said. “He’s a great role model. He’s somebody that puts 11 months a year into this. It’s not like some other coaches at other schools where they’re here or there. He’s here for us the entire year. Even when we did lose in the first round, he was still there for us.

    “He believes in us. I think he’s the best coach in the country. I would never want to play for anybody else.”

    Hurley has his players believing that they can win a national championship.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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