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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Diarra brothers appreciate sharing March Madness journey

    UConn junior Hassan Diarra, left, and brother Mamadou Diarra, the team's Director of Player Development, pose for a photo on Friday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Gavin Keefe/The Day)
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    Las Vegas – Brothers Hassan and Mamadou Diarra feel truly blessed.

    Growing up, Hassan and Mamadou Diarra never thought they’d both be members of the same UConn basketball team – the former as a guard and latter as the team’s director of player development.

    And they’d both got to experience their first Elite Eight together on Saturday when fourth-seeded UConn faced No. 3 Gonzaga at T-Mobile Arena for the right to go to the Final Four.

    “It’s truly amazing and it’s truly a blessing,” Hassan said on Friday. “It’s something that you don’t even dream of. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s kind of crazy.”

    A transfer from Texas A&M, Hassan is in his first season playing for coach Dan Hurley and the Huskies. He’s filled the valuable role as backup point guard, averaging 2.3 points, 1.4 rebounds and almost two assists in 13.5 minutes while appearing in 33 games.

    And what a memorable season it has been.

    UConn reached the Elite Eight for the first time in nine years and piled up 28 victories prior to Saturday’s NCAA tourney game.

    Both Hassan and Mamadou are enjoying every minute together.

    “We’ve always talked about this time of the year, even last year while he was at A&M and we were in the tournament,” Mamadou said. “That was just something that he always wanted to be a part of. To have him here and be able to share the experience, it’s been amazing.

    “... It’s just good to see him through this experience and see him grow every day and become a better player and better human being.”

    Mamadou, whose UConn basketball career was cut short due to chronic knee injuries and graduated in 2020, is in his fourth year on Hurley’s staff. He started out as a student assistant coach, then spent two seasons as a graduate assistant before moving into his current position.

    The Diarra brothers grew up in Queens, N.Y., and shared a love of basketball.

    “We worked out in the park all the time, including with our little brother,” Hassan said. “We used to do that daily during the summer. We’d go to the park at 6 a.m. and be there until probably 7 p.m.”

    Both brothers agree that outside their differences in height – Mamadou is 6-8 and Hassan 6-2 – they’re similar in many other ways, including personalities.

    “We kind of have the same personality,” Hassan said. “I’m a little more quiet than him. He’s a little bit more outgoing. Other than that, we’re kind of similar.”

    Hassan and Mamadou come from a big family. They have a younger brother in Cherif and two sisters, Fanta and Ouleymatou.

    “Growing up, me, my brothers and my sisters, we were tight,” Mamadou said. “You see me, you see my brothers all the time. We did everything together. For things to come back full circle in our basketball careers and me being on the staff here and him being a player, it’s been amazing.”

    It’s been an exciting time for their parents, Kadija Kone and Fousseny Diarra, and their siblings.

    “They want us to win (Saturday) so we can go to (the Final Four in) Houston,” Hassan said. “And they’re going to be there. It’s exciting and a blessing. It’s truly amazing.”

    Setting a UConn standard

    The Huskies credited a team meeting during their January funk for helping them turn the season around.

    Since going 3-5 in January, UConn won 11 of its next 13 games on the way to reaching the Elite Eight.

    They talked about returning to the winning formula that made them so successful during a 14-0 start.

    “That meeting was just a talk amongst us of stuff we had to do to hold ourselves to a higher standard, the UConn standard,” junior Andre Jackson said. “It was really just taking an everyday approach to get better as a team. We all did that, and we made it true.

    “And we’re making sure we’re all on the right page, the same page.”

    Sophomore Jordan Hawkins added: “We just had a man-to-man conversation. We decided to be real with ourselves. We knew we didn’t want to be in the same position that we were last year. So we had to look ourselves in the mirror and take that big leap that we had to take.”

    Huskies rooting for the Huskies

    While the UConn men’s team played in Las Vegas Saturday night, the women’s team appeared in the program’s 29th straight Sweet 16 in the afternoon in Seattle.

    “You can’t fathom that,” Hurley said of the streak.

    The UConn men recently made their 18th Sweet 16 appearance overall.

    The two teams are tight on and off the court.

    “I think just the players between the two programs and the coaching staffs are very closely connected and very supportive,” Hurley said. “And we share our practice facility and we’re each other’s biggest fans.

    “It’s a really cool thing that this March we’re holding up our end of it.”

    The UConn women’s tournament run ended on Saturday with a loss to Ohio State.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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