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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    UConn’s reserves make a valuable contribution to team’s success

    UConn guard Hassan Diarra (10) during a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 29, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

    Their goal is to bring value to the UConn basketball team every time they come off the bench.

    Reserves Hassan Diarra, Samson Johnson and Jaylin Stewart have succeeded in their mission, all contributing to the team’s successful NCAA tournament run.

    Without a reliable and productive bench, UConn would be watching the Final Four and not preparing to compete in a national semifinal game against No. 4 Alabama on Saturday (8:49 p.m.) at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

    The trio will be ready to do their part this weekend.

    “We want to come in and bring a spark, bring effort, play the right way and play off the guys that are on the court already,” Diarra said. “We just want to bring value to the team, whatever that is, defensively, offensively.

    “We just have to be those guys.”

    UConn’s bench has undergone some changes since last season.

    Veteran transfers Nahiem Alleyne and Joey Calcaterra, two key reserve members of the 2023 national championship team, are gone. They averaged a combined 13 points during the NCAA tournament run.

    Donovan Clingan, who played only 13 minutes per game as a freshman reserve, is now anchoring the starting frontcourt.

    Diarra and Johnson are the only players left from last season’s bench brigade.

    A 6-foot-2 senior guard, Diarra’s role has expanded after basically serving as a defensive stopper and energy giver last season. He’s enjoying his best season, recording career bests in field goal percentage (48.8), 3-point field goal percentage (35.8), rebounds per game (2.9), assists (2.4) and averaging a career-high-tying 6.2 points. He is also a calming influence and provides veteran leadership.

    Samson Johnson, an athletic 6-foot-10 junior, has gone from seeing only brief action, mostly at the end of blowout victories, to being a key frontcourt backup to Clingan. He’s a dunk machine, often on the receiving end of lob passes, and averages a career-best 5.4 points and 2.8 rebounds.

    At this time last year, Stewart, a freshman forward with a bright future, was home in Seattle watching his future team play on television. His development this season allowed coach Dan Hurley to use an eight-player rotation. He plays limited but important minutes, giving starter Alex Karaban a break.

    All three reserves have brought value to the team during March Madness.

    “We’re not afraid of the moment,” Johnson said. “We just try to help the team and we just try to match the intensity level that the starters set, and try to exceed that if we can.”

    Something good tends to happen when Diarra enters a game. He’s averaging 7.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in four March Madness games. He scored in double digits in consecutive games for the first time this season, doing it versus San Diego State and Illinois in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, and also played stellar defense.

    In the Final Four trip-clinching win over Illinois on Saturday in Boston, Johnson scored 10 points in 18 minutes, only his seventh time this season reaching double digits.

    UConn had an edge in bench points in all four March Madness games.

    “Hass has been a beast,” Hurley said. “We wouldn’t be here without Hass because we got so much from Joey California and Nahiem Alleyne off the bench and Donovan off the bench last year. That bench was a monster. We had a top 20 pick (in Donovan) coming off the bench last year.

    “That’s part of that bulletproof formula. When you have Jaylin Stewart, Hassan Diarra and Samson Johnson, we’re able to keep rolling.”

    Depth also is a strength of Alabama’s.

    Eight different Crimson Tide players average 12.5 minutes or more per game.

    UConn will be counting on Diarra, Johnson and Stewart to bring more value than their Alabama counterparts.

    Diarra isn’t satisfied with winning one national championship.

    “It’s amazing to do it again,” Diarra said about returning to the Final Four. “We manifested this. We understand we’re not done yet. But this is a great accomplishment. We just want to keep the train rolling.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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