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With air of inevitability, Connecticut repeats as NCAA tournament champion

With air of inevitability, Connecticut repeats as NCAA tournament champion

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

GLENDALE, Ariz. — If the NCAA men’s basketball tournament counts as one of the nation’s ultimate rodeos, then it just witnessed maybe the smoothest two-year case of bronco riding it ever saw. Coach Dan Hurley’s Connecticut Huskies spent Monday night finishing an unimaginable calming of the rambunctious event, becoming the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006-07 and only the second since Duke in 1991-92. It parked a program little-known four decades ago way up high on the list at six national championships, in third place shoulder-to-shoulder with North Carolina.

In its 75-60 win over an excellent Purdue whose shots started suffering against Connecticut’s elite defense, the Huskies (37-3) demonstrated what they demonstrated across 12 masterful games in two hairy brackets. They could play with swagger, play with fight, play while hot, play while not, play outside, play under the boards with their voracious rebounding, play until their leads grew and their nerve endings never even wiggled.

And those leads always grew. They won those 12 games by margins between 39 and 13, and they won at the last turn against the 7-foot-4 impediment of national player of the year Zach Edey, whose 37 points and 10 rebounds cloaked slightly that his sweet little hook shots and other attempts started straying uncommonly awry. As Edey became a near-island amid stifled teammates, with only guard Braden Smith thriving at all otherwise, his majesty couldn’t quite steer the Boilermakers (34-5) to Purdue’s first national title, even if he had piloted them through the sky to Purdue’s first Final Four since 1980 and first national final since 1969. It’s just that it ended against Connecticut, which meant Purdue’s loud and frenzied portion of the 74,423 in the Arizona Cardinals’ football stadium didn’t get to spend the closing moments utilizing its loudness and frenzy.

The usual Connecticut waves swept over the game, even in a match between two No. 1 seeds who towered above the whole season. Even when the Huskies’ three-point shots weren’t nice to them — seven straight misses through the early second half — their collaboration soared. It soared twice in particular on consecutive lobs from all-American Tristen Newton to excellent backup Samson Johnson, Newton near the foul line, Samson materializing in the air near the basket, one on the right, one on the left.

When that gorgeous little binge got done at the 14:40 mark, the Huskies had stretched their lead from 36-30 at halftime to 47-34 as that lead started getting ominous. It reached 65-47 by the five-minute mark as Purdue joined Stetson, Northwestern, San Diego State, Illinois and Alabama as teams that could not subject Connecticut to drama this year after Iona, St. Mary’s, Arkansas, Gonzaga, Miami and San Diego State couldn’t do it last year, either.

Near the outset Monday night, the two teams gave an apt demonstration of why they spent the previous four months winning 70 of their combined 77 games. The game stayed close and taut even if Connecticut did make hints of its usual grabs of big leads, going up 32-25 at one point and then by six into intermission.

Within this scrap of quality, Edey shone early and often. He edged his well-proportioned 300 pounds right into counterpart Donovan Clingan and began making Clingan look like a smallish man of 7-2. Without hesitation or remorse, Edey tossed in one of his pretty little throw-hooks to open the scoring, then moved right to set up his bolt to the glass on the left for a layup. Soon, his hook shots looked like their usual little splashes of art.

By the 6:50 mark of the first half, he already had 14 points and three rebounds, and Connecticut already seemed a bit at a loss to cope. For one thing Johnson, spelling Clingan for one minute, crammed two fouls into that one minute. Along the outside, Purdue’s Smith made unafraid drives and collected nine points, three rebounds and three assists.

As usual, though, Connecticut seemed to answer whatever questions the game asked at whatever end of the floor that asked it. Its defense got meatier, and tucked amid Purdue missing eight of its last 11 first-half shots was Edey’s miss of his last three.

He closed that half at 7 for 12 with 16 points and five rebounds, alongside two blocks on the same early Connecticut possession, and while that seemed a lot, Connecticut got a lot from its usual committee of soul-crushers. It went through the first half on 15-for-31 shooting, with Newton looking perfectly composed while getting 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting with two assists and with Cam Spencer thriving early toward seven points and Clingan later on, also toward seven points. Clingan, the younger tower in the throwback post-play matchup, in his second college season to Edey’s fourth, took a while to catch up, but he shored up his contribution enough that eventually he stood outside the arc near the top of the key one minute before halftime and went ahead and launched.

It clanged, making him 2 for 8 from three-point range this season, but two offensive rebounds later, Connecticut had an acrobatic second-chance layup from freshman Stephon Castle and its halftime lead.

As Connecticut’s lead stretched slowly after halftime, its defense kept tightening and Purdue kept missing. Where the Boilermakers had made 10 of their first 17 shots, they made five of their next 17. Edey’s little hooks went awry to the point he had a streak of misses that reached six. They all got help against falling hopelessly behind because Connecticut missed seven straight three-point shots through the early parts of the second half.

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