UConn will play for the title on Monday night
Houston – Senior Nahiem Alleyne stood in a crowded and victorious UConn locker room on Saturday holding a poster of the national championship trophy at his feet.
UConn has carried around the photo as motivation.
On Monday, the Huskies will get a chance to trade it in for the real thing.
They never trailed in Saturday’s national semifinal while beating Miami, 72-59, before 73,860 fans at NRG Stadium.
“It’s awesome,” junior Andre Jackson said about playing for a national championship. “It’s been my dream to play in a game like this. I can’t wait to go out there and compete and really earn it. We only have 40 minutes of basketball left in the season, so you just empty the tank when you get out there.
“It’s great to be a part of this team. I wouldn’t want to take the court with any other team for a national championship game.”
They’ll play for the program’s fifth national championship and first in nine years at 9:20 p.m. Monday against fifth-seeded San Diego State (32-6), which advanced in dramatic fashion, beating No. 9 Florida Atlantic, 72-71, on Lamont Butler’s game-winning, buzzer-beating jumper in the first semifinal.
UConn believed this was possible long before convincing others outside the program with its devastating strong postseason play.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this team had the potential to do this,” reserve Joey Calcaterra said. “This is why I came to UConn. We put in the hours and put in the work and stayed in the gym together and built these connections together in order to perform highly on a stage like this.
“It’s just a complete group effort.”
As he’s done throughout March Madness, junior Adama Sanogo carried the offensive load, finishing with team highs in points (21) and rebounds (10). Sophomore Jordan Hawkins fought through an illness to chip in 13 points, including 10 in the second half.
Redshirt freshman Alex Karaban had eight points and a career-high nine rebounds while senior Tristen Newton added seven points, eight assists and five rebounds. Alleyne (eight), Calcaterra (five) and freshman Donovan Clingan (four points, six rebounds) provided valuable sparks off the bench.
But UConn’s tenacious defense took home the No. 1 star, holding the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top scoring team to an icy 32.3 percent from the field and a season low for points. The Huskies have held all five tourney opponents to under 40 percent.
“I’m a defensive guy, first and foremost,” coach Dan Hurley said. “I just loved the way we guarded them. One of the best offensive teams in the country and we really disrupted them. They had been on such a roll coming in. I just really thought we body-blowed them until we could knock them out.”
Saturday’s game was the toughest of UConn’s NCAA tournament run despite the fact it won a fifth straight game by double digits -- a program record.
It took a gritty effort to hold off the fifth-seeded Hurricanes (29-8), who beat No. 1 seed Houston and No. 2 Texas to reach the Final Four.
UConn (30-8) was in command from the start but had to overcome some adversity.
Hawkins was still recovering from a stomach bug that forced him to miss practice Friday and stay in bed in his team hotel room. He buried his first shot – a 3-pointer – but then went cold.
“I felt absolutely terrible, I’m not going to lie to you,” Hawkins said. “I felt bad. I knew I had to suck it up for the guys. It’s a Final Four game, I had to play in it, no matter what.”
With Hawkins struggling and Jackson limited to four minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, the Huskies turned to their productive bench and stretched the lead.
“It was huge,” Karaban said. “The depth is one the biggest strengths of this team. So It really showed out in the first half when Andre had to come out with foul trouble and Jordan not feeling so well. Our teammates had to step up.”
Sanogo and Newton combined to carry the offensive load early on.
Left open, Sanogo buried back-to-back 3-pointers to help UConn to a 9-0 lead. Newton’s 3-pointer pushed the gap to 14-4.
When Miami gradually fought back to tie the game at 19-all, UConn pulled away again. Calcaterra’s layup handed his team the lead for good and sparked an 8-0 run.
After draining a 3-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer, Karaban high-fived his teammates before heading to the locker room up 37-24. The Hurricanes were just nine for 36 from the field at that point.
UConn weathered one more challenge, as its 20-point lead slipped to 53-45 on Isaiah Wong’s 3-pointer with 11:38 remaining. Turnovers (15 overall) hurt the Huskies.
The Huskies showed their killer instinct, extended their lead to double digits again and gradually closed the program’s eighth win in nine Final Four games.
“Now we have a chance to play for a fifth national championship,” Hurley said. “We’ve been striving for five for a while.”
The Huskies are hungry to complete their joy ride.
“We’re not satisfied,” Clingan said. “We came here to win a national championship. Until then, I don’t think we’ll have a great celebration. .. We’re not done yet.”