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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    UConn clinches its first outright Big East regular season title in 25 years

    UConn guard Stephon Castle (5) reacts after dunking the ball in the first half of Sunday’s game against Seton Hall in Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) blocks a shot by Seton Hall center Jaden Bediako (15) in the first half of Sunday’s game in Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley reacts as he poses for a photo with son UConn guard Andrew Hurley (20), left, wife Andrea, second from left, and son, Danny, right, during senior ceremonies before Sunday’s game against Seton Hall in Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    Retired UConn mascot Jonathan XIV, right, looks at his successor, Jonathan XV, after the collar has been passed during a halftime ceremony at Sunday’s game between UConn and Seton Hall Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Storrs – Time to throw away the tattered poster-sized photo of the Big East regular season trophy that UConn has carried around since preseason.

    The Huskies have the real thing now.

    They left no doubt about the best team in the Big East on Sunday, thumping Seton Hall, 91-61, before a rowdy sold-out crowd at Gampel Pavilion. They’re the outright league champions for the first time since 1999.

    After the statement-making victory, No. 3 UConn (26-3, 16-2) received the Big East trophy and celebrated by cutting down the nets.

    “Thrilled with the way we played…,” coach Dan Hurley said. “Not getting either the Big East regular season or Big East tournament championship last year, as great as a national championship was, this was a thorn in our side, especially the regular season.

    “Next to getting to a Final Four or winning a national championship, winning the regular season of a conference like this is the hardest thing to do, harder than the Big East tournament because you’ve got to earn it in a true round robin (format) in some incredibly tough places to play and the most physical games in college basketball against the best coaches in the country.”

    It was a day of celebrations, as UConn honored Hassan Diarra, Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer and Andrew Hurley during an emotional pregame Senior Day ceremony. The Huskies finished the season unbeaten at home for the first time in 18 years.

    Yet, the Big East title clinching celebration was on the subdued side. The Huskies have bigger goals in their sights.

    “I’m proud of the guys and we’ve worked really hard for this…,” sophomore Donovan Clingan said. “But this is just the first of many. We’re not going to celebrate this too long because we’ve got bigger goals and bigger things to accomplish. This is something we can really soak in.”

    UConn’s demolition crew went right to work on Sunday, punching in and quickly punching out Seton Hall, which won the first meeting by 15 on Dec. 20 in Newark, N.J. The Huskies seized a 15-point halftime advantage and put on a show in the second half while building a huge lead.

    The game highlighted all of UConn’s strengths as a team and showed why the Huskies are considered a national championship contender.

    They rode a balanced attack to victory, with Clingan leading the charge with his third double-double in the last seven games. He finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and a career-high tying five blocks.

    UConn shot 55.9% percent from the field, controlled the boards by a 38-26 edge and shut down the Pirates (18-11, 11-7), who converted 37.7%.

    “There’s not a lot of holes,” Hurley said. “We’ve had a couple of outlier performances – the Creighton game, a total breakdown of who we are. But when we stick to our script and stick to our formula and we’re about our identity, there’s not a lot of holes in our attack.”

    Newton played his usual strong all-around floor game in his final appearance before the home fans, chipping in 17 points, 10 assists and four rebounds. Redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban snapped out of his shooting funk to score 13 points.

    But freshman Stephon Castle attracted the biggest spotlight while contributing a game-high 21 points. It was easy to see why Castle is projected to be an NBA Draft lottery pick, if he decides to leave after this season.

    Castle helped contain Kadary Richmond, Seton Hall’s best player. Richmond started out the game just one for eight from the field and finished 7 for 17 with 15 points.

    He was just as impressive with the ball in his hands, shooting an efficient nine for 12 from the field while scoring in a variety of ways.

    “Just his size, what he was able to do in the paint offensively, his efficiency and his defense, that was tremendous,” Hurley said.

    In a spectacular play, Castle shook two defenders by first dribbling behind his back and then going with a cross-over dribble before sailing down the lane for a dunk that sent the home crowd into a frenzy and pushed the lead to 23 midway through the second half.

    “I’m just out there having fun,” Castle said.

    The Huskies certainly had fun.

    It was all UConn after a 9-0 run put the Huskies in front for good, 23-18.

    And they pushed their lead to 22 early in the second half despite Spencer going scoreless until the final 13:30.

    In the final few minutes, Hurley pulled his starters and inserted his bench players, including his son Andrew, a walk-on. The crowd roared when Hurley made a free throw with 39 seconds left.

    All in all, it was an emotional day for the Huskies, from the Senior Day ceremony to the postgame, net-cutting celebration. They earned the program's 11th regular season title overall and first Big East championship of any kind since 2011 when they won the league tournament.

    “It was a cool experience, having my parents here and winning the conference,” Newton said, “but we celebrated in the locker room and (Monday) we will be back at work trying to finish out the conference well in the last two games. We still want the (Big East) tournament championship and the national championship, too.”

    UConn will finish the regular season by visiting Marquette Wednesday and traveling to Providence on Saturday.

    Then the Huskies will be the No. 1 seed in next week’s Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.

    Dating back to early February 2023, they’ve won 38 of the last 42 games.

    “We’ve got a lot of confidence,” Hurley said. “I think last year winning it has given us a freedom to go out and coach and play. We don’t have heavy shoulders. We’re attacking games as opposed to carrying a lot of March pressure.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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