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    Monday, February 26, 2024

    UConn never looks back after early 14-0 run, routs Arkansas to reach Elite 8 vs. Gonzaga

    UConn's Alex Karaban (11) celebrates during the first half of the Huskies’ NCAA West Region Sweet 16 game against Arkansas on Thursday night in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
    UConn's Andre Jackson Jr. rise for a dunk during the first half of Thursday’s NCAA West Region Sweet 16 game against Arkansas in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley reacts down the court in the second half of Thursday night’s NCAA West Region Sweet 16 game against Arkansas in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
    UConn's Donovan Clingan (32) celebrates after the 88-65 win against Arkansas in a Sweet 16 game of the NCAA West Regional on Thursday night in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley, right, shares a brief moment with son Andrew, a walk-on guard, following the Huskies’ 88-65 win over Arkansas in a Sweet 16 game of the West Regional on Thursday night in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

    Las Vegas – The seeds for UConn’s NCAA tournament run were planted during a meeting in coach Dan Hurley’s office last March.

    Hurley had a purposeful conversation with Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins, his team’s foundation, days after a second straight painful first round loss.

    “He really just told us things are going to change,” Jackson said. “From that day on, we just really held each other to a higher standard and just told each other we’re going to push for a national championship.”

    The Huskies would begin building something special after that meeting.

    Reaching the program’s first Elite 8 in nine years with an impressive 88-65 runaway win over No. 8 Arkansas in the West Region Sweet 16 definitely qualifies as special.

    “Really where we are right now is exactly where we talked about where we would be, when we got together,” Hurley said. “After we lost that first round game last year, we sat together and said this is where we’re going to be. … And obviously we’re thrilled to play one more to go to the Final Four.”

    Fourth-seeded UConn (28-8) erased any lingering doubts whether it is national championship contender material with its dazzling display of all-around basketball.

    The Huskies posted their most lopsided win ever in the Sweet 16. They’ve won their first three NCAA tournament games by double digits. The previous two times that happened in program history (2009, 2004), they reached the Final Four.

    “They’ve got a real complete team, probably the most complete team in the country,” Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV said. “I think they can definitely win it all.”

    UConn (28-8) will play No. 3 Gonzaga, which outlasted No. 2 UCLA 79-76 in Thursday’s late game, on Saturday at 8:49 p.m. in its first Elite Eight appearance in nine years.

    A year ago, advancing this far in the NCAA tournament seemed to be a pipe dream.

    But Jackson believed it was possible despite the roster yet to be fully rebuilt. A total of eight newcomers would eventually join the program.

    “I’ll always remember that day forever,” Jackson said. “We knew we were three good building blocks and we all had confidence that we could help each other. … We brought in the right pieces and brought in the right people and were able to build a really good team.”

    The results certainly back that up.

    The Huskies did everything well against Arkansas (22-14), a team that stunned top-seeded Kansas in the second round.

    They ran an efficient, balanced offense, shooting a sizzling 57.4 percent. A smothering defense limited the Razorbacks to 31.7 percent. They assisted on 22 of 31 field goals and received 22 points from the bench. They held a 43-31 rebounding edge.

    “We’re playing our best basketball right now,” Sanogo said.

    In his best postseason performance of his young career, Hawkins fired in a team-best 24 points. Sanogo continued his postseason tear, chipping in 18 points and eight rebounds. Redshirt freshman Alex Karaban and reserve Nahiem Alleyne had 11 and 10 points, respectively.

    And don’t forget Jackson’s seven points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

    After sluggish starts in their first and second round wins, the Huskies took a different route to victory, seizing the lead for good on the game’s first basket.

    The Huskies found their groove about eight minutes into the game.

    A stingy defense forced Arkansas to play beat the shot clock.

    Unselfish play and strong ball movement on the offensive end led to a ton of layups and dunks.

    Put the two together, plus sprinkle in a contribution from the bench, and the Huskies raced off on a 14-0 run and built a 17-point lead.

    Newton started the spurt by burying a deep 3-pointer from the March Madness logo. Then Jackson’s nifty pass found Clingan for a dunk, making the Huskies 10 for 16 from the field.

    Sanogo capped off the run with an inside basket, pushing the edge to 34-17 and forcing Arkansas to call a timeout.

    The Huskies carried a 46-29 advantage into halftime, their biggest in three games in the NCAA tournament. They shot 60.7 percent (17 for 28) in the first half while relying on a balanced attack.

    “We were coming at them from so many different places offensively,” Hurley said. “We just had them on their heels.”

    Meanwhile, the Razorbacks struggled to find open shots. The presence of 7-foot-2 Clingan provided a deterrent for Arkansas to attack the basket.

    UConn kept its foot on the accelerator at the start of the second half.

    The Huskies only temporarily lost their edge while dealing with a full-court press. Jackson lost his cool and picked up a dead ball technical.

    When their 29-point lead dipped to 19, they had seen enough.

    Hawkins drained a 3-pointer and put his finger to his mouth on the way back down the court.

    “I was just having fun out there,” Hawkins said.

    The Huskies led by as many as 29 (62-33).

    And their March Madness joy ride continues.

    They play for the right to go to the Final Four on Saturday.

    “It’s crazy,” graduate guard Joey Calcaterra said. “This is what we worked so hard for, all of our lives and all season. The moments are finally here and so far we’ve been taking advantage of them. Saturday is going to be something special, too. We’ll be ready when that time comes and be prepared for it.”

    UConn has an NCAA tournament history with Gonzaga.

    Back in 1999, UConn reached its first Final Four in program history by beating Gonzaga, 67-62, in Phoenix.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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