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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    UConn rolls past Indiana to advance to Empire Classic championship game

    Indiana's Malik Reneau, center, drives to the basket through UConn's Alex Karaban, left, and Donovan Clingan during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    UConn's Alex Karaban, left, Solomon Ball (1), center, and Donovan Clingan (32) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    Indiana's Trey Galloway, left, passes around UConn's Donovan Clingan (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    UConn's Donovan Clingan, right, fights for a rebound with Indiana's Gabe Cupps (2), bottom, and Kel'el Ware during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    Indiana's Kel'el Ware, left, tries to guard UConn's Tristen Newton during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    New York – UConn thrived while enduring the scorching hot competitive fires of a national championship season.

    So a little heat didn’t bother the Huskies on Sunday afternoon.

    Playing Indiana before an energized Madison Square Garden crowd, they kept cool under pressure, battled through some cold shooting stretches and relied on their veterans to deliver their first marquee victory of the season in the Empire Classic.

    “Any game we’ve got to step up and do our job…,” graduate guard Tristen Newton said. “But I feel like we needed to step up big.”

    Newton certainly rose to the occasion in a 77-57 win that propelled UConn (4-0) into the Empire Classic championship game at 7 p.m. on Monday against No. 19 Texas, which beat Louisville 81-80.

    He finished with season highs in points (23) and rebounds (11) and added six assists and formed a formidable backcourt with graduate transfer Cam Spencer (18 points).

    “An incredible performance by these two guys,” said coach Dan Hurley, referring to Newton and Spencer who sat beside him at the postgame press conference. “You win a lot of games in college when you’ve got a backcourt like this.”

    Credit UConn’s frontcourt as well, especially sophomore Donovan Clingan (seven points, nine rebounds) who limited 7-foot center Kel’el Ware to just 11 points on two for 10 shooting. Redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban had 13 points, including 11 in the first half, and six rebounds despite battling foul trouble.

    The Huskies won the inside battle against one of the best frontcourts in the Big Ten. They held a 44-22 rebounding advantage, 16-0 in second chance points and limited the Hoosiers (3-1) to 38 percent shooting.

    “We did the hard things really well,” Hurley said.

    Everything was harder for the Huskies on Sunday facing a strong non-conference opponent for the first time this season after rolling past three weak mid-major programs, winning by an average of 39 points.

    Hurley shortened his rotation and leaned heavily on his veterans.

    It was a rock fight from the start, with both teams playing physical basketball. Karaban and Newton kept the Huskies afloat early on, combining to score 20 of the team’s first 28 points.

    Newton took an aggressive approach, driving to the basket and drawing fouls. He went a team-best eight for 10 from the foul line overall.

    “He was the best player in the national championship game in front of 75,000 people with all the money on the table,” Hurley said. “Coming into MSG in an atmosphere like this for him, it’s exciting. But he’s an accomplished player.”

    The Huskies, who never trailed after taking a 10-8 lead and led 37-30 at halftime, didn’t start to really break free until about seven minutes remaining. Right about then the Hoosiers lost sophomore forward Malik Reneau, who fouled out with 18 points.

    Holding a 10-point lead, Spencer helped deliver the knockout blow. He sparked a 10-0 run by burying a 3-pointer and then scoring on a runner in the lane. Newton converted two free throws and then set up Karaban’s basket for a 68-48 lead with 4:42 remaining.

    Indiana called a timeout.

    Clingan waved his arms to the crowd as the Huskies headed to the bench.

    Spencer played in his share of pressure-packed games at Rutgers last season, so he’s comfortable playing in spotlight games.

    “These are the games that you live for, so I just wanted to leave it all out on the floor,” Spencer said.

    Hurley found out a lot about his Huskies, who are a different team than last season but still talented.

    “Going into the first big game of the year, we lost a lot from last year’s team so I think you never really know even coming in here today, you get in front of a crowd and it’s the first time this team is taking the court with some electricity in the building,” Hurley said. “Each team is its own entity every single year, especially when you lost what we lost.

    “I was really impressed with how we separated today. I was impressed by what the boys did.”

    UConn, which has won 10 straight non-conference games by double figures, will face another tough challenge on Monday.

    The Huskies should have some strong fan support once again at an arena they consider a third home court.

    “The crowd was awesome,” Hurley said. “UConn always shows up here.”

    News and notes

    Freshman Solo Ball started in place of Stephon Castle, who’s out for at least a few weeks with a knee injury, in the backcourt for the second straight game. He finished with 10 points – all in the second half. “Solo settled in the second half and played really, really well. That was encouraging. … Hurley credited the decisive edge on the boards to doing Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun’s old rebounding drill during practice last week. “Shout out to G.O.A.T.,” Hurley said.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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