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Huskies handle Tide, advance to second straight title game

For every opponent they’ve faced in the last calendar season, the UConn Huskies (36-3) have been in their crosshairs. Nearly everyone given the rifle has all lined up for their shot at the defending champions, and one after the other has watched Dan Hurley’s so-called bulletproof vest stop it. Next up to have their best not be enough? The Alabama Crimson Tide (25-12).

Despite entering its first Final Four with the nation’s most high-powered offense and another dazzling display of scoring, the Huskies stopped the Tuscaloosa train in its tracks. Off the back of yet another 40-minute masterclass, UConn turned away Alabama 86-72, establishing their place in Monday’s national championship for the second consecutive season.

“Our identity is to be pretty relentless,” Hurley said postgame. “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.”

For much of the game, the upstart Tide hung right with the experienced Huskies. Sticking to their identity of running up the score, Alabama came out of the gates on fire with 20 points in little more than 10 minutes, making five of its first seven three-point shots. Not to be outdone, UConn put the ball in the hoop just as much, leading 24-23 with freshman Stephon Castle leading the way. Leaving the star wing open on the perimeter, Castle took advantage with a pair of three-pointers, contributing to his 13 total first-half points and career-high 21 on the night.

UConn’s defensive game plan adhered to its morals of toughness on the ball and relentlessness on the boards, but it didn’t show much in the first half. While the Huskies mostly had their way offensively, Alabama sharpshooters Mark Sears (5-5 from the floor) and Aaron Estrada (8 points, 2 3PT) kept them in contention. When the halftime buzzer sounded, the Crimson Tide had cashed eight of its eleven three-point shot attempts and had put 40 on the scoreboard, a first for a UConn opponent in a half this tournament. And yet, they were still losing, due in part to their deterrence from the three-point line.

“We'd rather be pushing more like mid 30s on threes,” Tide head coach Nate Oats said. “But they were obviously going to try to take us off the line.”

Coming out of the half with a 44-40 advantage, the Huskies didn’t exactly go on a 30-0 run but held the Tide away from their bread-and-butter to stretch its lead to eight by the first media timeout. 

Regathering their composure, Alabama punched right back with a long three from Sears and a thunderous jam by Grant Nelson to tie the game at 56. Not challenged that late in the second half of this tournament, the Huskies seemed to be on the ropes for the first time in a while. 

“They were really, really hard to guard,” Hurley admitted.

By then, Alabama had exhausted nearly everything they had left just to be level on the scoreboard, leaving nothing in reserves for the final 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the Husky Express still had plenty in the tank and slowly but surely wore their prey down.

After Alabama knotted the score, the Huskies retook command with a 7-0 run, one of four such stretches on the night that they would never relinquish. UConn’s defensive adjustments in the second half forced the Tide off the three-point line down the stretch, and with Donovan Clingan imposing his will in the paint, put Alabama’s fire out on offense.

“They did a better job of running us off the three-point line,” Mark Sears said. “Even when we would try to create separation, they were right there to run us off the line. I'd say they did a great job of doing that.”

“They have a really good rim protector,” Grant Nelson continued. “I feel like we didn't really attack the rim with the physicality and the patience we should have.”

Rather than put his own tactics at fault, Oats cited the Huskies overwhelming soundness as the main point in its second-half separation.

“They imposed their will on a lot of teams,” Oats said. “In some regards, they imposed their will on us tonight, especially with the pace of play. Kept getting our guys to push a little bit faster. Seemed like there was always bodies in front of us…UConn is great.”

With their offense stymeid, Clingan and Connecticut took hold of the game. With 18 points and four blocks, the lane belonged to the Huskies, and Alabama’s taper-off from a hot shooting start slowly faded them into submission. The wearing fatigue, combined with UConn’s slow-tempo, kept Alabama from getting into their patented transition game, shutting them out on fastbreak points for the first time all year.

“I think the feeling just with the group is it's body blows,” Hurley explained. “It's body blows, 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.”

As Alex Karaban rained a three from Storrs under four minutes, and Clingan followed it up with a successive pair of swats and slams, the Huskies rode the sled down the slope with ease, stopping at their second straight national championship game.

UConn’s 14-point win marked its 11th consecutive double-digit victory in the NCAA Tournament, putting yet another stamp on an unprecedented run of March Madness dominance.

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

The Huskies will look to become the first repeat champions in men’s basketball since Billy Donovan’s 06-07 Florida Gators when they meet Purdue for all the marbles on Monday night.

“Everyone came to UConn to try to be a part of history,” Clingan said postgame. “We're one step closer to our goal. But none of us in this locker room are satisfied. We know we have a lot of work to do, big matchup on Monday.”

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