Connecticut outlasts splashy Alabama, setting up a heavyweight final

Connecticut outlasts splashy Alabama, setting up a heavyweight final

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Connecticut, the Secretariat of the past two NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, could not subject Alabama to one of those familiar Connecticut stretch runs that conjure a jockey looking back over his shoulder trying to see if he can spot somebody back there. Yet it did show Saturday night that it could win through another method: a steady, poised climb to an 86-72 nod.

With that, it became not only the first defending champion to reach a Final Four since 2007 but also the first to reach a national title game since Florida turned up opposite Ohio State way back then. Further, it arranged a daydream of a Monday night at the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium, where 74,720 turned up for the semifinals that also saw the breakthrough of similarly towering Purdue.

It meant the tournament, so often fiendish with its knack for upsets and its patent disregard for regular season consistency, got out of the way and allowed a final between two teams that hovered (with Houston) above the whole four-month season and will bring fat, healthy records to Monday night: the 36-3 of Connecticut and the 34-4 of Purdue.

The Huskies held up their end despite the sight of repeated Alabama swishes from three-point range, as the Crimson Tide started 8 for 11 by halftime and 9 for 13 soon thereafter before tailing off to a more human 11 for 23. That made Alabama (25-12) viable in a game that stood at 57-56 with 12 minutes to play and 67-61 with eight. For window dressing, though, the No. 4 seed from the West Region did not match the 13 points Miami ended up trailing Connecticut in last season’s Final Four, the closest any team has come in 11 tournament games across the 2023 and 2024 brackets.

One thing did ring familiar, though: the beautiful chemistry of Connecticut’s collaborative basketball. It showed in a final box score that had guard Stephon Castle at 21 points and five rebounds, big man Donovan Clingan at 18 points and five rebounds, Alex Karaban and Cam Spencer at 14 points, and all-American Tristen Newton at 12 points with nine mighty assists.

Steadily, that broke through, even against the 24 points from Crimson Tide second-team all-American Mark Sears and the 19 points and 15 rebounds from banging, breakthrough big man Grant Nelson.

Having trailed for only 28 aggregate and puny seconds of their first four games of the tournament, and for barely more than five minutes in their closing four games last year, the Huskies lent basketball geeks the chance for an eccentric parlor game. It might measure the snippets of time they managed to trail, if they bothered to trail at all.

Would it resemble the games against Stetson and Northwestern, in which Connecticut helped itself to airy leads of 46-10 and 36-14, or would it work like San Diego State and Illinois, when a 35-31 lead sprouted to 73-45, and then a 23-23 tie ballooned to 53-23?

Alabama led 3-0. That was a start.

And then through the first half, Alabama kept swishing three-point shots. Five different players made them. The Crimson Tide hit five of its first seven, six of its first nine, seven of its first 10 and eight of its first 11 by halftime. It upheld Coach Nate Oats’s reply to a question Friday about whether there’s such a thing as too many threes in a game: “No.” (It depends on the defense, he said.)

Then, when Connecticut led 42-35 and did seem capable of going happily astray from Alabama’s hopes, a fresh shotmaker stepped in. It was Sears, the Alabamian transfer from Ohio University who had not partaken as the clock ticked into the last minute before halftime. When his launch from the right side splashed down with 50 seconds left, it narrowed the score to 42-38.

When Sears wound his way through larger bodies and the lane to find a soft layup from the left side as the half expired, the score stood 44-40, Sears stood 5 for 5 from the field with three rebounds and two assists, and the lingering Alabama fret would be that its 8-for-11 first half from downtown Phoenix somehow resulted in that deficit.

That Connecticut lead happened on little binges rather than big gasps, on recoveries from deficits such as 18-15, 23-18 and 25-24. It featured a mild assists advantage of 9-6 (four from Newton), 5 for 15 three-point shooting, 13 points from Castle and eight each from Clingan and Spencer.

Still, the Huskies’ repeated separations would not hold. They included a 48-40 lead that withered to 48-47 and a 55-47 advantage that shrank to 55-54. Only at the 14-minute mark of the second half did Alabama begin to show some humanity from beyond the arc, missing three straight, including two from Sears, one blocked by Karaban and one fast and wild and hopeless. By then, the Crimson Tide had drifted to a mere 10 for 18.

Even that kind of thing couldn’t topple Connecticut.

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