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    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    Hurley’s Huskies roll right into the Final Four

    UConn head coach Dan Hurley celebrates after cutting down the netting from the 82-54 win against Gonzaga in the West Region final of the NCAA tournament on Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
    UConn forward Adama Sanogo (21) and guard Andre Jackson celebrate after the 82-54 win against Gonzaga in the West Region final of the NCAA tournament on Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
    UConn guard Jordan Hawkins celebrates after making a three-point basket in the second half of the West Region final of the NCAA tournament against Gonzaga on Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

    Las Vegas – Before finishing carving a path of destruction through the West Region Saturday, UConn sat quietly in its T-Mobile Arena locker room.

    As has been the case during their impressive March Madness run, the fourth-seeded Huskies were focused and ready to go for their Elite Eight showdown.

    “There was just a certain mood in the locker room….,” freshman Donovan Clingan said. “It’s silent. We came in here to get dressed and there was not a word said. You could see everyone’s face locked in.”

    It was an emotional scene as well.

    For a moment, junior Andre Jackson made eye contact with coach Dan Hurley, who started to tear up while writing the scouting report on the board.

    The mere thought that Saturday’s game against No. 3 Gonzaga could be the close-knit team’s last time on the court together was nearly overwhelming for Hurley.

    “I love coaching this team,” Hurley said. “I’ve gotten emotional. Andre saw me crying before the game right in (the locker room), because I can’t think about coaching this group for the last time. It makes me sad. It’s just an incredible group of guys to coach.”

    The Huskies (29-8) will have an opportunity to take the court at least one more time in Saturday’s national championship semifinal in Houston against Miami. Game time will be approximately 8:49 p.m., with Florida Atlantic and San Diego State, two first timers in the Final Four, meeting in the first game.

    So far, it’s been nothing but a joy ride.

    They celebrated a decisive 82-54 Elite Eight victory with net-cutting and trophy presentation ceremonies, a new experience for every player on the roster. This group had never even won an NCAA tourney game prior to this year.

    Now they’re the first UConn team to win their first four tourney games by double digits since the 2004 national championship team.

    During that emotional pregame moment, Jackson gained an added appreciation for his intense and passionate head coach.

    “I felt the same way because I don’t want this to end,” Jackson said. “If it doesn't end the way I want it to end, then we’re planning for it to end, it’s going to hurt more than anything because this team means the world to me.”

    The Huskies plan on playing their last game next Monday night for the national championship. They set that goal during the preseason when few people outside their inner circle believed that dream could become a reality.

    “We’ve got to keep going,” Clingan, who cradled the West Region championship trophy while sitting in the locker room after the win. “We’ve got two more. I’m not sure who we’re going to be playing, but we’ll find out tomorrow and be ready.”

    UConn found out about its national semifinal opponent on Sunday after its return to campus. The Huskies ran into a little travel trouble, landing at T.F. Green International Airport in Warwick instead of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks due to fog. The players arrived back on campus at around 11:45 a.m.

    By then, Hurley and his coaching staff already started to prepare for their next opponent, breaking down video on both Miami and Texas.

    There’s no off button in Hurley’s world, just the next challenge.

    So far, the coaching staff has put together some masterful game plans during March Madness and it has shown on the court.

    Especially against Gonzaga with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

    The bigger the NCAA tourney game, the better UConn has performed.

    A tenacious defense limited Gonzaga, a high-powered team that came into the game leading the country in scoring at 87.1 points per game, to just 54 points and 33.3 percent shooting while All-American forward Drew Timme (12 points) was not a factor.

    The Huskies are an offensive juggernaut right now, riding a balanced attack and unselfish play as well as heart and hustle. They assisted on 21 of 30 field goals on Saturday.

    In four NCAA games, they’ve outscored their competition by a stunning average of 22.5 points per game.

    Their three best players – sophomore Jordan Hawkins, junior Adama Sanogo and Jackson – have led the charge.

    It’s the kind of incredible team performance that can bring tears to a coach’s eyes.

    “I can’t wait to take the floor in Texas with him because I know this is not going to take away from his hunger,” Jackson said of Hurley. “This is cool and we all appreciate it. But we’re playing for a coach that’s ruthless. We’re going to the end.

    “I can’t wait to take the floor in Texas. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. But we’ve just got to appreciate the moment. It’s great to play for him.”

    If not before postseason play, UConn certainly proved in its West Region semifinal and final that the program has returned to the elite level of its glory days that included five trips to the Final Four and four national championship titles.

    “UConn’s back,” Hawkins said.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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