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UConn outlasts Alabama, will face Purdue for NCAA title

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By jeenmediaa


GLENDALE, Ariz. — If there’s one play from UConn’s win over Alabama on Saturday night that typified the Huskies’ run toward back-to-back national championships, it wasn’t a Donovan Clingan blocked shot or an Alex Karaban transition 3-pointer.

It was Tristen Newton, calmly standing off to the side chewing his gum, then slowly working his way back to the ball to receive a pass and bury a 3-pointer to give UConn a nine-point lead midway through the second half.

Aside from having the nation’s best offense and a top-five defense, one thing that has separated the Huskies is their unflappability. They have supreme confidence in what they’re doing. Eventually their shots will start falling. Eventually the opponent’s shooting will regress to the mean. Eventually the better team will win — and this season, the better team, far more often than not, has been UConn.

And that was the case again on Saturday night, as the overall 1-seed Huskies advanced to their second straight national championship game with an 86-72 win over 4-seed Alabama.

“We don’t crumble,” Clingan said. “Basketball is a game of runs. We stay composed, stay together and just keep playing as a team, and they’re not going to make every shot.”

UConn will face fellow 1-seed Purdue, which beat NC State in the first Final Four matchup, in Monday’s national title game. According to ESPN BET, UConn opened as a 6.5-point favorite vs. the Boilermakers.

While UConn’s 30-0 run last week against Illinois was a lightning-in-a-bottle scenario, it did highlight a major theme this season: The Huskies just don’t stop attacking. And most teams run out of steam before UConn does.

“Our identity is to be pretty relentless,” coach Dan Hurley said. “We might not break you for 18 minutes, 25 minutes, but at some point if what we’re doing at both ends and on the backboard is at a high level, it just becomes hard for the other team to sustain it.”

The first 10 minutes of Saturday’s second half were the epitome of a blow-for-blow sequence. The first team that failed to counter was likely going to lose. The Huskies started the period with four straight points to open up their biggest lead of the game, an eight-point edge. Alabama immediately responded with a 7-0 run, then UConn countered with a 7-0 run of its own — and Alabama came right back with a 7-0 run and ultimately tied the game at 56 with 12:41 remaining.

UConn scored the next eight points and Alabama didn’t get closer than six points the rest of the way.

“It’s body blows, it’s body blows,” Hurley said. “It’s continue to guard, continue to rebound, execute our offense. Eventually there will be a breaking-point opportunity that will present itself, especially in this tournament.”

The Crimson Tide were able to withstand most of UConn’s runs because they couldn’t miss from 3, hitting nine of their first 12 attempts from behind the arc. But they made just one of their next nine 3s as UConn continued to score timely baskets or get clutch stops when needed.

“I think it’s disheartening for the other team because they’ve seen it,” Hurley said. “They’ve seen us do it a lot.”

Alabama posed a bigger challenge for UConn than any team the Huskies have faced in this year’s NCAA tournament. The Crimson Tide were making shots early and forcing UConn’s defense to rotate out of position, especially when star center Clingan was out of the game. Clingan, who had 18 points and four blocks, blocked a shot on Alabama’s first possession and controlled the paint at that end of the floor.

But when he went to the bench, Alabama was able to take advantage, scoring a quick 10 points on its first four possessions with Clingan on the bench. After UConn trailed for just 28 seconds in its first four games of this year’s NCAA tournament, Alabama led the Huskies for almost five minutes in the first half of Saturday’s game. UConn also faced its largest deficit of the tournament when the Tide opened up a 23-18 lead with 11:09 remaining in the first half.

“It’s a grind-it-out game. We can’t be too high, we can’t be too low,” said Karaban, who had 14 points and two key blocks on Alabama star Mark Sears. “We’re not making shots, we just got to stay focused, stay locked in. We know what we’re capable of as a team, we know what the other team is capable of too … We knew that they were going to have their runs; we just had to respond with our runs.”

Alabama hasn’t been shy about its identity and what got the team to the Final Four: 3-point shooting. The Crimson Tide made 16 shots from behind the arc in the regional final against Clemson and had made at least 11 3s in three of their four NCAA tournament games.

In the first half against UConn, the recipe didn’t change. Three of Alabama’s first four field goals were 3-pointers, including a Grant Nelson triple on the Tide’s first possession. They shot 8-for-11 from the perimeter in the first half. Earlier in the week, Alabama coach Nate Oats said he wanted to “let ’em fly” and didn’t mind if his players approached 50 3-point attempts in a game if that’s how the defense played them. So while the high percentage from 3 kept Alabama in the game, the number of attempts (23 for the game) provided optimism for Hurley — and was a concern for Oats.

“We knew they were going to try to run us off, be physical,” Oats said. “Yeah, 23 is not ideal. We’d rather be pushing more like mid-30s on 3s. But they were obviously going to try to take us off the line. When they took us off the line, we drove it in. They did a better job forcing us to take more non-rim 2s than we probably have all year … Almost a third of our shots ended up being non-rim 2s. That’s not how we typically play.”

For UConn, it was Clingan and fellow projected first-rounder Stephon Castle willing the Huskies into the lead. Castle, the five-star freshman, was assigned to defend Sears — and held him scoreless for the first 6:38 while scoring 13 points of his own. The Crimson Tide were giving Castle — a 26.2% 3-point shooter on the season — plenty of space on the offensive end, with Nelson cheating off him to help clog the lane around Clingan. Castle, who finished with a game-high 21 points, responded by burying two early 3s and showing plenty of aggressiveness driving to the rim.

“I noticed it like the first play of the game when we were trying to run a set and the guy was guarding me in the paint. I tried to take advantage of it early,” Castle said. “I wouldn’t say it was motivation. I would just say it was kind of a disrespect on their end just to guard that far back.”

Clingan and Castle bought UConn enough time for veteran guards Newton and Cam Spencer — the Huskies’ two stalwarts all season — to get their offense going. Newton scored five straight late in the first half, and then Spencer hit a couple of shots to help the Huskies open up a 42-35 lead with 1:15 left until halftime.

With a potential game-changing run looming — and the 30-0 avalanche against Illinois just one week ago — it was Sears who kept Alabama within arm’s reach going into the break. He hit a corner 3 with 50 seconds left and then a leaner in the lane as time expired to cut UConn’s lead to 44-40 at the end of the first half.

“We have the experience from last year,” Karaban said. “Although we dominated teams last year, we still had the experience of playing against 75,000 people, and really the venue and the pressure that brings with the Final Four. The experience never really rattled us. We knew we just had to stay together and respond.”

UConn is now 40 minutes from becoming the first back-to-back national champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007. The Huskies’ streak of NCAA tournament wins by double digits also remains intact, as they’ve now won all 11 tournament games over the past two seasons by double digits.

“We make a hard tournament look easy,” Hurley said. “It’s crazy.”



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