Sunday, June 16, 2024

Final Four 2024: UConn now one more dominant run away from rarified air, but Purdue’s Zach Edey stands in way

GLENDALE, Ariz. — If you were waiting for the obligatory UConn run Saturday night, you had time to run to bathroom and a grab a hot dog — maybe, a sit-down dinner — on your way back.

Competing against their own standard — which is what the season has ultimately become for No. 1 UConn — the 86-72 win against Alabama in one national semifinal the result was a comparative nail-biter. The thumping was eventual, not a lightning strike. 

The result was predictable, just not immediate. 

UConn played its closest game in three weeks, and two things can be true: Bama, the nation’s highest-scoring team that typically can’t defend well, left it all on the floor … and UConn is relentless. 

But you already knew that. 

“We thought we could break them,” said UConn sophomore forward Alex Karaban, one of two returning starters from last year’s title team. “We think we can do that with every team.”

It was less a statement than a necessary step the way UConn is playing. The Huskies converted, covered and were calculating, winning an 11th straight Final Four game, an ongoing record dating back to the Kemba Walker-led 2011 championship run.

Yet Saturday’s victory was UConn’s closest win since a 95-90 Big East Tournament victory against St. John’s in mid-March. Since then, the Huskies have won games by an average of 22.6 points.

The win sets up the game with fellow No. 1 seed Purdue for the national championship that has been anticipated for at least half a season. The Huskies can break the Boilermakers and the 17-year drought since the last back-to-back champions (Florida in 2006 and 2007).

The prelude to that Purdue summit meeting within this ongoing UConn Invitational may have come with about five minutes into the second half. The Tide shot 73.7% (8-for-11) from 3-point range in the first half and were playing surprisingly good defense.

Alabama was in the process of rallying from eight down in the second half when 6-foot-11 Grant Nelson dunked all over the Huskies’ 7-2 big Donovan Clingan. The poster had State Farm Stadium gasping. It was an affront to a program that usually does that type of dunking both figuratively and literally.  

“I started tapping my head,” Alabama’s Aaron Estrada said, showing the dunked-on gesture. “I didn’t even expect him to do that.”

No one did. The Huskies carry themselves with a certain swagger. Nelson then followed up with a driving layup against Clingan and a back-down basket that tied it 56-56. Clingan’s response? A shoulder shrug.

“Everybody gets dunked on,” Clingan concluded.

Not everybody responds like the Huskies. They went on an 8-0 run that quickly blossomed to 11-2. It wasn’t 30-0 like against Illinois but it was enough. 

“Alabama just stayed on the attack, they just kept assaulting us,” UConn coach Danny Hurley said. “With their offense and aggression and their shot making. They wouldn’t go away when other teams would normally go away.

“I think we answered some questions of being able to play later into a game.”

UConn doesn’t have much left to prove about itself — except that to be the best, it is going to have to beat the best. 

“We know this Purdue game is going to be a real clash of the titans,” Hurley said. 

Clingan was asked how soon he’d be watching film of Edey. 

“As soon as we get on the bus,” he replied. “We’re going to walk out of this gym … I’ll be watching film of Purdue on the bus.”

Nelson had his dunk. He also has perspective. In a six-point Purdue win in December, Edey went for 35 and 11. Nelson chipped in 11 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes. 

“I think they match up pretty well,” Nelson said of Clingan and Edey. “They both draw a lot of fouls … If you put them up against each other, it’s really just who is more physical, who can foul less.”

 “He’s been the most dominant player for the last two or three years,” Clingan said. “I’m excited. Playing against one of the best players in college basketball at the biggest stage competing for everything.”

But the Huskies are so much more than Clingan. Their six through nine players might be able to be the core of a team that goes to a regional final. Talented freshman Stephon Castle tied a career high with 21. Leading scorer and all-American Tristen Newton had only four field goals and 12 points. Down the stretch, he looked like a facilitator instead of a scorer.

That’s how flexible these Huskies are. 

“Alabama gave their best, and [UConn] still pulled away,” said Aaron Jones, Newton’s cousin who was trash-talking the Tide from the first row. 

Part of the difference was at the rim. Clingan blocked four shots but his influence once the Tide got close was clear intimidation. The number of Alabama players who lunged into the lane only to screech to a halt confronted by Clingan’s wingspan was considerable. 

What’s next was immediate film study on the bus. Clingan admitted it. He’d been thinking about Monday’s clash for a while. Edey can become the first 7-footer to average at least 20 to win a national championship in 55 years (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1969, UCLA). 

“Clingan’s going to come out with a chip on his shoulder,” Jones said. 

Like Kareem, Clingan can come out with multiple rings. 

“It crossed my mind, last weekend. Maybe two weekends ago,” he said of the matchup with Edey. “I will say I’m really good at realizing at what’s in front of me.”

Grab a hot dog. Early. This one is going to be good. 

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