Connecticut’s power knows no bounds as it heads back to the Final Four

Connecticut’s power knows no bounds as it heads back to the Final Four

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

BOSTON — Another opponent had been turned into roadkill. Another party had broken out amid the pervasive and white-clad Connecticut cheering section. Another milepost on the path to history had been passed. Coach Dan Hurley walked to midcourt during a late timeout and stared into stands packed with Huskies fans. He raised his arms and shouted, “Let’s go!” As the crowd stood and roared, Hurley circled back, found his son Andrew, a Connecticut walk-on, and hugged him.

“There really wasn’t anything said,” Andrew said later. “We were just basking in the moment. You really don’t get a lot of these. It’s so rare to do what we’re doing.”

On Saturday night at TD Garden, Connecticut continued its venture into a plane of basketball infrequently seen. Powered by 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan’s defensive dominance and an overwhelming burst of near-perfection to begin the second half, the top-seeded Huskies throttled No. 3 seed Illinois, 77-52, in the NCAA tournament’s East Region final and steamrolled into the Final Four, two victories away from defending their national championship.

Connecticut became the first team since Florida in 2007 to reach the Final Four the year after winning a title, and it could become the first repeat champion since those Gators. The Huskies will head to suburban Phoenix as an overwhelming favorite, a juggernaut stacking up blowouts with wickedly skilled players whose collective might surpasses the aggregate of their individual talent.

Seven minutes of surpassing basketball ensured Connecticut’s advancement before the game had reached its quarter pole. The Huskies scored the first 25 points of the second half, the bulk of a staggering 30-0 run that turned a tie game late in the first half into a coronation, a 30-0 run that approached something like art.

“It was like a high school practice where the first team is on defense and the second team is on offense and they just keep getting the ball and fast-breaking,” said Hurley’s father, Bob, a legendary New Jersey high school coach. “It was defense-to-fast break drill. But this was against a great college team with probably three guys who could play in the NBA. That didn’t look like a bunch of overachievers. That looked like a machine.”

Even by Connecticut’s standard, it had delivered a stunning NCAA tournament pummeling. And that is a remarkable standard. The 35-3 Huskies have pulverized their opponents by 39, 17, 30 and 25 points this tournament, an average of 27.8. Connecticut has won 10 consecutive tournament games by at least 13 points with an average margin of 23.1. The team is 50-5 since the middle of last season.

“The level of basketball that we’ve played to this point, it’s been unparalleled,” Dan Hurley said. “The domination of quality of teams. We out-rebounded a big, physical team. We shot 50 percent. We held one of the best offensive teams in the country to 25 percent. We took one of the dynamic scorers out of the game completely. The level of basketball we’re playing right now is going to be really, really hard to beat.”

Hurley noted that point guard Tristen Newton, a first-team all-American, did not make a field goal, and the Huskies made 3 of 17 three-point attempts.

“We could have scored more,” Hurley said. “We played a level of basketball that was demoralizing for them.”

Their second-half destruction of the Big Ten champions may have been the Huskies’ defining blowout. They constructed a masterpiece around Clingan, who scored a team-high 22 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and made the East Region most outstanding player voting easy. Clingan did everything, including dump a water bucket of red, white and blue confetti over teammates during the trophy presentation ceremony.

Clingan made his largest impact on defense. His presence vaporized the Fighting Illini offense. He blocked five shots officially, although Clingan said he believed he had several more with apparent justification. (“We will send the petition in,” Hurley said. “Because we’re petty like that.”) Clingan altered untold attempts and recorded three steals. When guarded by Clingan, according to ESPN, Illinois players missed all 19 shots they attempted. When Hurley gave Clingan a rest early in the second half, Illinois had scored only four points — and Connecticut had outscored the Illini by 30 — during the 17 minutes he had played.

“I love when Donovan plays well, because he loves to talk,” Newton said. “He dominated today, so nobody could really say anything to him. I knew today with the little guy — well, he’s not little compared to most people, but he’s little compared to Donovan — guarding him, we know it was going to be a mismatch.”

Clingan seized the game by the throat. As the Huskies separated early in the second half, they fed him the ball on offense and leaned on his rim protection on defense. During one sequence, Clingan rejected forward Quincy Guerrier’s dunk attempt as if Guerrier had tried to cram a plastic straw into a brick. On the other end, he soared over two defenders who barely reached his shoulders and threw down a thunderous, two-hand slam. After Illinois called an emergency timeout, Clingan looked at his bench, shouted, “This is my s—!” and accepted multiple flying chest bumps.

“That’s exactly what we want to do to teams,” forward Alex Karaban said. “We want to go on these large runs, and we want to open up the game. Any time we make the other team call time out, it really gets us going. We know they’re feeling something. They’re feeling the U-Conn. dominance.”

Guards Stephon Castle, Newton and reserve Hassan Diarra took turns smothering Illini guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who entered the NCAA tournament scoring 23.0 points per game (third in the nation) and had averaged 31.2 since the start of the Big Ten tournament. He finished with eight points Saturday night on 2-for-12 shooting, including just two points in the first half.

The two best offenses in the country made 30.8 percent of their shots and mustered only 51 combined points in the opening 20 minutes. Illinois maintained contact throughout the half, as Connecticut missed its first 10 three-point attempts. Coach Brad Underwood moved to a smaller lineup, forcing Clingan out from under the basket, and the Illini momentarily challenged the Huskies as no opponent had this tournament. Illinois tied it at 23 with 1:48 left until halftime.

And then came an onslaught. Connecticut plays ferocious defense and symphonic offense, swinging the ball side to side, cutting around screens and never letting its opponent rest. It’s less sheer talent that makes the Huskies devastating than how exceedingly well they play together. “This team fits,” Hurley said, which is as succinct of an explanation of Connecticut’s excellence as there could be.

With 40 seconds remaining, Hurley walked over to his wife in the front row and whispered to her, “We’re going to the Final Four again.” A few minutes later, he climbed a ladder and cut the last snip of the net, his region champion hat on backward. He waved it over his head and shook the rim with both hands, rocking the backboard. “Woo!” he screamed. It was pure Hurley, a coach who hides nothing — not his bravado, not his fears, not his scars — as he becomes a face of the sport.

“I’m authentic,” Hurley said. “I am who I am. I’m basically a high school coach that’s, like, masquerading up at this college level. I don’t really care what people think of my intensity or my passion. It obviously shows up the right way with my team. We don’t cheat. We don’t lie. We’re about all the right things. I’m just at times an a——.”

History stands with Connecticut as it heads west. It has reached seven Final Fours, all of them in the past 25 years. In five of their first six trips to the final Saturday of the season, the Huskies claimed the title. Other programs torture fans and contemplate what-ifs. This one climbs ladders and cuts down nets.

“We think we’re supposed to win these games,” Hurley said. “U-Conn., the fan base, the organization, history in men and women’s basketball, we truly believe deep down in someplace that this is what we’re supposed to do this time of year.”

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