UConn’s continued its dominant run through the 2023 NCAA Tournament with a 72-59 win over Miami for a spot in the program’s fifth national title game.
The Huskies entered the Final Four as the overwhelming favorite to leave Houston with the title, and Dan Hurley’s squad flexed their proverbial muscle from the very start.
After building a double-digit lead in the game’s first six minutes, the Huskies led for over 39 of the game’s 40 minutes. The Hurricanes threatened a comeback in the second half, but UConn had an answer at every turn.
Early in the game, Adama Sanogo drained two 3-pointers to get the run started while Miami only made one of its first 12 shots, setting the tone for the remainder of the proceedings. UConn’s big man duo of Sanogo and Donovan Clingan controlled the paint on both ends, spearheading both a 14-4 run to open the game and an emphatic 18-5 run to close the first half.
That was essentially where the drama ended. Miami managed to cut the deficit to as little as eight in the second half, but then those Huskies bigs went to work, keeping the ‘Canes at bay.
“[Miami] is made of runs,” Clingan told Heat Check CBB after the game. “We couldn’t let them have the feeling that they could still win it.”
Sanogo led the way with 21 points and 10 rebounds, routinely demonstrating that Miami had no answers for his game.
“Obviously, what we tried to do not only didn’t work but I couldn’t even recognize it,” Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga admitted. “I think, again, offensively we were out of sync and defensively we were, too. Everybody was playing so hard to guard their man that there was no help like we intended.”
Larrañage added that Sanogo was a difference-maker for the Huskies.
“(Sanogo) is a terrific player,” the Miami coach said. “He earned all of his points, but I think we could have done a significantly better job on him if we could have executed our gameplan. Some of it may have had to do with (UConn) making three straight 3s to start the game, which stretched our defense out and opened things up.”
UConn’s size advantage ultimately proved to be the deciding factor. The Huskies finished with a 41-32 edge on the glass and limited Miami to a measly 8-of-23 on attempts at the rim thanks to the impact of Sanogo and Clingan. Connecticut only finished the game with five blocks, but that duo altered just about everything the ‘Canes attempted around the basket.
“We were all over our identity today,” Hurley said. “We hurt them on the inside and from the perimeter, but defense was the key. The effort these guys gave on that end was unbelievable.”
Miami’s struggles extended beyond the paint, too. The Canes shot just 32 percent from the field and 35 percent from three. A perimeter-oriented team that earned its Final Four berth because of its guard play, Miami needed to win the battle on the outside to have a chance in this game.
“It all starts with defense,” said UConn guard Jordan Hawkins, who scored 13 points after dealing with a stomach bug. “On the defensive end, we’ve been very elite. We’re playing to our strengths. That’s the biggest difference in what we’ve been doing.”
The 13-point margin of victory is the smallest of the tournament for UConn, highlighting just how dominant of a run this has been for the Huskies. They are the sixth team since 1985 to win their first five NCAA Tournament games by double-digits — and only one of the previous five failed to win the national title (2016 North Carolina).
In a season and tournament celebrated for parity and the lack of a truly dominant team, Hurley’s UConn squad looks to be changing that narrative in Houston.
“When we’re playing harder than the other team — which is our calling card — going plus-9 on the glass, playing elite defense and having the answers on offense, there are no areas where we’re weak as a team,” Hurley explained. “And we’re deep. We’re able to body-blow our opponent. It has a cumulative effect and wears down opponents. When people see us for the first time with two centers, all the shooting and a player like Andre Jackson, it’s hard to prepare for.
“We’re a unique team.”
This team will have the opportunity to prove how unique it is on Monday night in the national title game, where San Diego State awaits the Huskies. UConn is undefeated in its previous four title game appearances, the most recent coming in 2014.
“It means a lot [to play in that game],” Sanogo said. “It means a lot to us. It’s everything we worked for during the season. We need to stay locked in but we’ll be ready for Monday night.”
Header image courtesy of Tyler Schank/NCAA Photos/Getty Images