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    Sunday, May 28, 2023

    UConn men’s notes: Battle of the big men a key story line

    Gonzaga's Drew Timme (2) and Julian Strawther (0) celebrate in the second half of Thursday’s NCAA tournament game against UCLA in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

    Las Vegas – Drew Timme, Gonzaga’s All-American forward, handed out some generous compliments when asked about UConn’s formidable inside duo of Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan.

    He called Sanogo an “All-American caliber player” and said that Clingan has “All-American potential.”

    Sanogo had some nice things to say about Timme as well.

    “Watching his game I know he’s one of the best players in the country,” Sanogo said during Friday’s NCAA tournament press conference.

    The exchanges won’t be as pleasant Saturday night when UConn and Gonzaga met in the West Region Elite Eight game at T-Mobile Arena.

    The battle of the big men will be worth watching.

    Timme, a 6-foot-10, 235 pound senior, is on a mission to help bring the Gonzaga program its first national championship. Sanogo and Clingan can help send the Huskies to their first Final Four in nine years.

    UCLA certainly had no luck in containing Timme, who scored 36 points tied a school record for most points in an NCAA tourney game in the Sweet Sixteen win on Thursday.

    Timme leads the Bulldogs in points (21.5), rebounds (7.5) and assists (3.2). He’s the program’s all-time leading scorer and ranks fourth in rebounding. Gonzaga has gone 121-12 during Timme’s career.

    “I’ve been doing this as an assistant or head coach for at least 35 years, and I just think he’s one of the all-time greats in the modern era in college basketball,’’ said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. ”I don’t think enough people are saying that.”

    Sanogo and Clingan stand in Timme’s way of a trip to the Final Four.

    Gonzaga hasn’t faced a center combination like Sanogo and Clingan.

    Few players have had better NCAA tournaments this March than Sanogo, who’s averaging 23.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in three games while converting 75 percent (33 for 44) from the field.

    “He uses his body well,” Timme said. “He’s strong and aggressive. He gets a lot of his misses back, which I think is the underrated part of his game. He presents a lot of challenges and he’s a smart player.”

    Clingan, a 7-foot-2 freshman, has provided a disruptive presence off the bench as well as given the Huskies a scoring option under the basket while Sanogo takes a break.

    “With most teams, you have one big that you have to really worry about and then the other one is a drop-off, and you get to your stuff easier and you don’t have to really guard him,” Timme said. “But there’s no drop-off. He’s a hell of a player. And he presents a different challenge being 7-2.

    “It’s going to be a tough matchup.”

    And Timme will be a tough matchup for Sanogo and Clingan.

    Sanogo is ready for the challenge.

    “I think I’m going to do my job for us,” Sanogo said. “I can’t wait. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it will be a fun game.”

    Elite Eight history

    Almost exactly 24 years ago, UConn reached the same high stakes postseason game against the same opponent and in the same region as it will play on Saturday.

    With the program’s first trip to the Final Four on the line, the Huskies earned a hard-fought 67-62 win over Gonzaga in the West Region Elite Eight in Phoenix.

    It was a breakthrough win for UConn and coach Jim Calhoun, who went on to win the first of his three national championships.

    Assistant coach Tom Moore was there that day in 1999 and he’ll be on the sidelines again for Saturday’s game.

    Moore and fellow assistant Luke Murray are the only two members of the UConn basketball team with previous experience in the Elite Eight.

    This will be Moore’s sixth trip there, previously going with the Huskies in 1995, 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2006. Murray’s appearance came as an assistant with Xavier in 2017.

    “It’s been a bunch of memorable games…,” Moore said. “The 1999 was the one I remember the most because Coach Calhoun was starting to get that tag on him, the best coach to not get to a Final Four. Now we’re playing Gonzaga, who was an underdog. That was the game he had the most pressure on him.

    “I’ve never seen him more nervous before a game than in that one. Then we played Ohio State and Duke because he had gotten to the Final Four.”

    There will be enormous pressure on both UConn and Gonzaga Saturday night.

    The Huskies will be attempting to reach their first Final Four in nine years and give coach Dan Hurley his first trip.

    The players are ready for their moment in the March Madness spotlight, according to Moore.

    “These guys really believe,” Moore said. “They don’t seem nervous. They don’t seem jittery. They don’t seem to be caught up in the moment or worried about what’s happening next. They’re just playing really loose and confident and feeding off each other.”

    Observing Ramadan

    Juniors Hassan Diarra and Sanogo, and sophomore Samson Johnson are observing Ramadan, which started Thursday and is one of the holiest months for Muslims.

    From sunup to sundown, they do not eat or drink anything.

    Even on game days like Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen game.

    “If anything, if I get a little bit too parched, I’ll rinse out my mouth with water and spit it back out,” Diarra said. “It can be difficult at times. … But it’s part of my religion and part of what I’ve been doing all my life, basically.”

    Diarra, Sanogo and Johnson have the support of the UConn coaching staff.

    “They’ve done an amazing job helping us,” Diarra said. “A couple of staff are doing it with us, just to try it out and see how they do, which I think is truly cool. It’s hard to go through it by yourself.”


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