HOUSTON – The ball was on the baseline, at a near impossible point, and the pass had to be sent through a forest of objects to the perimeter as Alex Karaban snuck away from everyone. Only UConn’s Tristen Newton knew where the 6-foot-8 pitcher was, and even with inches of his lower body from going out of bounds, he fired the ball exactly where it should have gone.
That was how the first half ended in UConn’s 72-59 dismantling of Miami in Saturday’s second men’s national semifinal, and while the game wasn’t technically over, it could have been.
If Miami didn’t know this before, they sure had to at that moment. UConn had too many options and too many answers. And with every game in the rally through Monday night, the Huskies have proven to be very good.
It is inevitable. San Diego will be the next state to find out.
Certainly, with the caveat that anything can happen in a 40-minute game of basketball with college players, there has been no indication during the entire NCAA tournament that UConn is anything other than the best team in the country.
And he wasn’t particularly close.
In a college basketball season defined by par, we’re 40 minutes away from UConn rolling through a full arc without even a hint of drama. Margins of victory: 24, 15, 23, 28, 13, and the last victory is still pending. Even for some of the historically great teams who have emerged as champions, such a clean and dominant championship simply doesn’t happen.
“I just think when we play harder than the other team, which is our calling card, play plus-9 on the glass, play elite defense and have a lot of answers on offense, there’s nowhere we’re as vulnerable as we are,” coach Dan Hurley said. So we’re able to kind of hit our opponent and continue to accumulate quality possessions at both ends, and it has a cumulative effect and has been able to break opponents.”
Perhaps the Aztecs could be the team that finally makes UConn dig deep. But huskies are so well built, it takes a lot of things wrong to put them in a position to lose.
Andre Jackson, his do-it-all winger who guards the opposition’s best player, is given two fouls in the first five minutes and should stick to the bench? No problem.
Jordan Hawkins, perhaps the best shooter in the country, makes one basket in the first half after spending the last two days sick in bed? Big deal.
These are not the problems that bother Hurley. He can just turn the lineup around and play with three large formations that all do different things and collectively destroy what opponents want to do offensively.
“We were talking about who we are today,” said Hurley.
Miami came back from a 13-point deficit in the Elite Eight game against the Texans, but when Karaban’s triple slid across the net on the last possession of the first half, it looked very different.
Miami, the standout team to win the regular season Premier League title, was simply out of their league. Advanced metrics indicate that the Hurricanes were one of the top five offensive teams in the country this season. Against UConn, they may have had a few possessions the entire game as they got good shots from their offense in their half court.
The rest of the time, they were forced to tap on their arms and bodies that always seemed to be in the right place. It was a struggle for Miami to even make a pass. In keeping with the harshness and sharpness that Hurley demands with every possession, playing UConn doesn’t quite look like fun.
“It all starts with defense,” Hawkins said. “On the defensive end, we’ve been very elite, clearing plays, rebounding and coming up with transitions. We’re playing to our strengths.”
Perhaps the better question at this point is how did the Huskies lose eight games this season?
Hurley’s explanation is that UConn’s six-loss stretch from New Year’s Eve through the end of January was the result of a defensive slip and some near-meat-grinder losses in the Big East against teams that know them best. Once they got out of the toughest part of their schedule and got on the defensive again, the Huskies got back to being the team that started the season 14-0, including a 15-point win over Alabama in November.
Perhaps that should have been the evidence that UConn, despite being a No. 4 seed, was willing to step up.
“I just think the group has shown their quality so many times in terms of the level we can play at,” Hurley said. “I think we tried everything that January. It’s a battle-tested team.”
And now UConn stands on the brink of winning its fifth national title in the last 24 years, a truly unimaginable race for a program whose greatness was built by Jim Calhoun, thrown into disarray during the Kevin Ollie era and now fully restored by Hurley.
Should the Huskies win, they will have as many championships as Indiana and Duke in their history and more in this century than Kansas, Kentucky, and UCLA combined.
This is heavy stuff for a program without the historic blueblood sign, but UConn doesn’t need dusty streamer validation to justify its place in the college basketball hierarchy.
Here and now, nobody does it better. With one more win, this would not be in dispute.
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