Husky Huskies: UConn presents myriad of issues

UConn's Adama Sanogo (21) drives against Saint Mary's Mitchell Saxen, left, in the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
UConn's Adama Sanogo (21) drives against Saint Mary's Mitchell Saxen, left, in the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Dominating second-half performances have carried Connecticut to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, where the Huskies will play the University of Arkansas on Thursday night in Las Vegas in the West Region semifinals.

Connecticut (27-8) beat Saint Mary's 70-55 in a second-round game on Sunday in Albany, N.Y., outscoring the Gaels 39-25 in the second half.

In beating Iona 87-63 in a first-round game, Connecticut had a 50-24 second-half advantage.

"It feels like we're unbeatable," Huskies sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins said after scoring all 12 of his points against Saint Mary's in the second half when he hit 4 of 5 three-pointers. "The last two games in the second half, we just took off.

"When we're playing like that, I think we have a really good chance to win it all. We're going to continue to do that and put that together for two halves."

Connecticut is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014, when the Huskies won their fourth national championship.

Last year, Arkansas and Connecticut were the No. 4-5 seeds in the West Region at Buffalo, N.Y., and bracketed to play in the second round, but No. 12 New Mexico State beat the Huskies 70-63.

Two years ago, No. 10 seed Maryland beat the No. 7 Huskies 63-54 in a first-round game.

"The last couple years, March Madness was not good for us," Connecticut junior center Adama Sanogo said. "But that was a different team.

"Coach [Dan Hurley] makes sure we're not thinking about that too much, and he makes sure that we understand this is a different team and this is one of the best teams he ever coached."

Hurley, who is 100-55 in five seasons at Connecticut and 251-160 overall in 13 seasons overall including stops at Wagner and Rhode Island, downplayed his role in the big second halves for the Huskies in Albany,

"Listen, this is about this time of year, having players that step up and do what Jordan Hawkins did in the second half," Hurley said. "I'm no halftime guru."

Sanogo, 6-9 and 245 pounds, was voted first team All-Big East by members of the media and is averaging 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He had 28 points and 13 rebounds against Iona and 24 points and 8 rebounds against Saint Mary's, combining to shoot 24 of 33 from the field.

Arkansas senior forward Kamani Johnson said Sanogo has a similar game to Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky's All-American senior forward who averaged 16.5 and 13.7 rebounds this season.

"He's a super active big," Johnson said of Sanogo. "He's kind of Oscar-like with his motor in how he crashes the glass and how aggressive and physical he is.

"He's super skilled in the post, too. We've been watching film on him, and we're game-planning for it. We'll be fine."

The Huskies average 17.1 assists and have a plus-9.8 rebounding margin. They're shooting 36.2% on three-pointers (318 of 879) and 75.8% on free throws (488 of 644).

The 6-5 Hawkins is averaging 15.9 points and has hit 95 of 251 three-pointers (37.8%) and 106 of 120 free throws (88.3%).

"Hawkins is as good a shooter as there is in the country," Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said on Jim Rome's radio show.

Donovan Clingan, a 7-2 freshman, averages 7.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots in 13.0 minutes off the bench for the Huskies.

"Those guys are as good as any tandem at the center spot," Musselman said of Sanogo and Clingan. "We cannot give up threes, but you've also got to guard the paint, because both centers can really score with their back to the basket."

Tristen Newton, a 6-5 senior point guard who transferred from East Carolina, is averaging 10.1 points and 4.7 assists. He's hit 41 of 111 three-pointers (36.9%) and 119 of 147 free throws (81%)

Other key players for Connecticut include 6-8 redshirt freshman forward Alex Karaban, who is averaging 9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds and has hit 61 of 149 three-pointers (40.9%); 6-6 junior guard Andre Jackson, averaging 6.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists; and 6-3 senior guard Joey Calcaterra, who has hit 44 of 99 three-pointers (44.4%) and is averaging 5.7 points.

The Huskies have nine players averaging between 29.5 and 13.1 minutes.

"They've got all the metrics to win a national championship," said Rick Pitino, Iona's coach the past three seasons who was hired at St. John's on Monday. "They average 17 assists. They're plus-nine on the glass against great competition. They shoot 46% from the field. They shoot the three well.

"Their backup units are just as good as their starters. So they've got it all."

Connecticut started 14-0, including victories over Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State in Portland, Ore., then had a 2-6 stretch in the Big East that included losses to NCAA Tournament teams Xavier (twice), Providence and Marquette.

Over the past nine games, the Huskies are 8-1 with the lone loss to Marquette 70-68 in the Big East Tournament championship game.

Connecticut was 13-7 in Big East regular-season games.

"I mean, it's a tough league," said Hurley, who played in the Big East at Seton Hall. "The league kind of wears on you physically and mentally because of the environments and the style of play.

"I think maybe just the days off after the Big East season has kind of refreshed Adama, and it's refreshed the team. We look more like the team that was really alive and flying around the court during the nonconference."

Hurley said getting Connecticut back to the Sweet 16 has removed a lot of pressure on the team after first-round losses the previous two years.

"I think in the first and even second round, it's more of a burden to play at UConn than it is an advantage," Hurley said. "Just being able to get that first one, I thought the team was a lot looser [against Saint Mary's].

"Obviously now you get to the Sweet 16, you can really just kind of go out and let it rip."

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