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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    UConn men are headed back to the Final Four

    UConn guard Jordan Hawkins celebrates in the second half of an Elite Eight game against Gonzaga in the West Region final of the NCAA tournament on Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley celebrates after cutting down the netting from the 82-54 win against Gonzaga of an Elite Eight game in the West Region final of the NCAA tournament on Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley, middle, celebrates towards his players in the second half of Saturday’s Elite Eight game against Gonzaga in the West Region final of the NCAA tournament in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
    Gonzaga forward Drew Timme hugs head coach Mark Few while checking out of the game during the final minutes in the second half of Saturday’s Elite Eight game against UConn in the West Region final of the NCAA tournament in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

    Las Vegas – As an emotionally-charged Dan Hurley reached the top of the step ladder during the West Region championship celebration Saturday night, the UConn coach started to reach out to clip the net.

    He stopped and instead ripped it off the rim. Then he showed his team’s cherished prize to the crowd of UConn supporters still around inside T-Mobile Arena before putting the net around his neck and rejoining his jubilant team.

    Fourth-seeded UConn ripped the competitive hearts out of No. 3 Gonzaga on the way to posting the program’s most lopsided win in 12 trips to the Elite Eight.

    A devastating second-half blitz turned a tight NCAA tournament game into a stunning 82-54 rout and earned the Huskies (29-8) the program’s sixth trip to the Final Four.

    “What a performance by the boys,” Hurley said. “To do what we did to a team of that caliber, a program of that caliber, we were just playing at super high level. Obviously, we were surprised by the margin of victory, but not surprised about where we’re going next because this is who we’ve been for a large part of the season.”

    UConn will play either No. 5 Miami or No. 2 Texas, which meet in Sunday’s Midwest Region Elite Eight, in the national semifinals next Saturday.

    “We still have a chip on our shoulder,” junior Andre Jackson said. “We had a goal to make it to the Final Four, but more importantly to win a national championship. “That’s what we’re still pushing towards.”

    After watching UConn’s demolition crew go to work, the Huskies put forth a convincing argument.

    The Huskies received contributions across the board.

    Sophomore Jordan Hawkins, the West Region most outstanding player, fired in a game-high 20 points and drained six 3-pointers. Junior Adama Sanogo, who also made the all-tournament team, chipped in 10 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high six assists. Jackson had eight points, nine rebounds and 10 assists and redshirt freshman Alex Karaban had 12 points.

    “I didn’t think we were going to beat them like that,” Hawkins said. “That’s a great team.”

    For the first time since the 2004 national championship season, UConn won its first four NCAA tourney games by double digits.

    Saturday’s blowout win was the most impressive of the bunch.

    Gonzaga has a rich history of postseason success and had All-American forward Drew Timme on its side.

    “It feels good to win by a good margin because it feels like real UConn, because that’s what UConn used to do to teams,” Jackson said. “They were the best, and that’s the standard. … They used to kill teams and that’s the mentality that we go with. If we see a weakness, we smell it out and we act.”

    The game remained tight for the first half, with UConn only trailing twice and only briefly. Karaban hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to hand the Huskies a 39-32 lead at intermission.

    Jackson’s hustle and smarts set up the play. He stepped into the lane to grab an errant bounce pass from Tristen Newton and then quickly fired to an open Karaban for three.

    Other positive signs included Sanogo regularly passing out of double-team defenses and finding open teammates for easy baskets.

    “I was definitely ready for it because they had a game plan for me,” Sanogo said. “Every time they did that I was ready to pass the ball.”

    The Huskies left no doubt in the second half, playing their best stretch of basketball this season. They outscored Gonzaga, 38-13, to start the final 20 minutes.

    Karaban started things off by converting a runner and then Hawkins drilled a three to give UConn its largest lead thus far at 44-32. Gonzaga called a timeout.

    The Huskies, who lost in the first round in the past two NCAA tournaments, were ruthless, playing with great energy and intensity.

    Freshman Donovan Clingan’s dunk capped a 16-3 run, increasing the gap to 65-40 with 11:47 remaining.

    Nothing was stopping the Huskies from reaching their goal.

    “Everything was clicking for us offensively and defensively,” graduate guard Joey Calcaterra said. “The second half was just a blast.”

    The Bulldogs, who converted only seven of 29 field goal attempts in the second half and shot 33.3 percent overall, were done.

    Timme battled foul trouble throughout the game and finished with 12 points on five for 14 shooting after scoring 36 in a Sweet Sixteen win over UCLA.

    “UConn was just terrific tonight,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “And we didn’t have any answers.”

    Up 75-44 heading into a timeout with 7:15 left, the Huskies basically just waited for the postgame celebration and net-cutting ceremony.

    Hurley hugged his family members that came out on the court. Players grabbed West Region championship hats and t-shirts. They all took turns cutting down a piece of the net, with Hurley climbing the ladder last.

    “Watching it on TV and seeing guys do it and it was my first time cutting down the net, it was an amazing feeling,” Hawkins said.

    The Huskies flew home Saturday night feeling pretty darn good.

    “I don’t think it has hit me yet,” Karaban said. “I’m still so excited and have adrenalin from the game. I still want to keep playing. It’s an unreal feeling and something that won’t be taken away from me for the rest of my life.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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