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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    UConn men heading back to NCAA championship game

    UConn center Youssouf Singare, rear, hugs center Donovan Clingan after the NCAA college basketball game against Alabama at the Final Four, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
    UConn guard Stephon Castle (5) dunks over Alabama forward Grant Nelson (2) during the second half of the NCAA college basketball game at the Final Four, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley embraces forward Alex Karaban (11) during the second half of the NCAA college basketball game against Alabama at the Final Four, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson )
    UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) celebrates after their win against Alabama in a NCAA college basketball game at the Final Four, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
    UConn forward Samson Johnson (35) blocks a shot by Alabama forward Mouhamed Dioubate (10) during the second half of the NCAA college basketball game at the Final Four, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

    Glendale, Ariz. — Considering the significance of its accomplishment, UConn had a subdued reaction to a national championship semifinal victory on Saturday.

    After a hard-fought 86-72 win over No. 4 Alabama, the top-seeded Huskies shifted their focus to the next and final roadblock in their quest to become the first college basketball team in 17 years to repeat as national champions.

    They’ll play No. 1 Purdue (34-4) in the program’s sixth national title game appearance at 9:20 p.m. on Monday at State Farm Stadium.

    “We expected to be in this position,” redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban said. “We’re not celebrating. We came here for two wins. We didn’t come here just to win a Final Four game against Alabama. We want to win the whole thing.

    “The returners know how special that feeling is to go out and compete for a national championship. … We’re not satisfied at all.”

    Playing before 74,720 fans, UConn (36-3) survived its toughest tournament to advance after winning the previous four games by an average of 27.8 points.

    The Huskies were locked in a 56-all tie with under 13 minutes remaining before gradually breaking free from the Crimson Tide (25-12), who cooled off from 3-point range, finishing 11 for 23 after making eight of their first 11 from beyond the arc.

    Down the stretch, they sharpened their offensive execution and turned up the defensive pressure, closing the game with a 30-16 run. They extended their NCAA record of double digit tournament wins to 11 straight dating back to last season.

    “We were able to wear them down playing a full 40 minutes,” said senior Hassan Diarra, who had a cut on his nose from catching an inadvertent elbow. “They’re a tough team. They stuck with us until the last media timeout. That’s where we separate ourselves.”

    Like it has done all season, UConn passed around the scoring baton.

    Playing in his first Final Four, freshman Stephan Castle took the baton first, scoring 13 of his career-high tying 21 points in the first half. He helped stabilize his team until his teammates found their rhythm.

    “I had it going,” Castle said. “My teammates put me in great positions to be successful. I saw a couple of shots fall early. I just had it going.”

    Sophomore Donovan Clingan finished with 18 points, five rebounds and four blocks despite playing with a bruised right wrist. Cam Spencer (14 points), Karaban (14) and Tristen Newton (12 points, nine assists) also scored in double figures.

    “This team is all about playing for one another…,” Clingan said. “Everyone is so unselfish and everyone wants to see everyone else succeed. It’s a special team to be a part of. I love this team.”

    UConn knew right away it was in for a competitive fight.

    Alabama, the nation’s top scoring offense that heavily relies on the 3-point shot, came out firing away.

    When Rylan Griffen buried a 3-pointer, UConn faced its largest deficit of the tournament at 23-18. The Huskies previously trailed for a total of 28 seconds.

    The Huskies kept going on mini-runs and the Crimson Tide kept answering.

    Holding a slim 44-40 at halftime, the Huskies tried to pull away again, building their biggest lead thus far — eight — on Castle’s dunk.

    Back came Alabama, tying the score at 56 on Grant Nelson’s hook shot in the lane with 12:40 left.

    The Huskies stayed composure and finally started to find some traction. Castle’s two free throws pushed UConn in front for good, 58-56.

    Newton’s 3-pointer capped an 11-2 run and increased the lead to nine. The Huskies relied on their tight defense to close out the victory. The Crimson finished with a season-low for points in the second half with 32. All-American guard Mark Sears had 24 points for Alabama.

    “Alabama stayed on the attack and they kept assaulting us with their offense and their aggression and their shot-making,” coach Dan Hurley said. “They just wouldn’t go away when other teams would normally start to go away.

    “I think we answered some questions about being able to play later into a game. We had game pressure on us much later into a second half, which is going to bode well going into the championship game.”

    UConn headed back to the team hotel after Saturday’s win to start preparing for Purdue, which beat No. 11 North Carolina State, 63-50, to reach its first national championship game since 1969. National player of the year Zach Edey had 20 points and 12 rebounds.

    “It’s the two best programs in college basketball the last two years,” Hurley said. “Clearly the two best are going to play a titanic matchup.”

    With Saturday’s win, the Huskies improved to 11-1 all-time in Final Four games. They’re 5-0 in the finals.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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