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UConn pulls away from Alabama for another shot at a national title

UConn’s Stephon Castle scored 21 points to lead the Huskies into Monday’s NCAA championship game against Purdue. (Photo courtesy UConn Athletics)

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team will get another shot at winning the national championship on Monday night. The Huskies relentless pressure wore down Alabama as UConn earned an 86-72 victory in Saturday night’s semifinals in Glendale, Arizona.

The Huskies (36-3) will face Purdue in Monday’s NCAA championship game beginning at 9:20 p.m.

UConn is the first team since Florida to advance to the title game in consecutive years and the Huskies are looking to be the first squad to win back-to-back NCAA titles since Florida did it in 2006 and 2007.

A week ago, the Huskies used a 30-point run to turn a tie game against Illinois into a blowout victory in the East Regional title game. On Saturday night, the game was tied six times.

Alabama’s Grant Nelson scored over UConn’s Alex Karaban with 12:40 left in the game to tie the game at 56-56. But on the next possession, it was Connecticut’s Stephon Castle battling three Crimson Tide defenders for a rebound for what seemed an eternity. Castle stayed with it and was eventually fouled trying to score in the low post.

Castle hit two free throws that helped spark an 8-0 run for the Huskies. Alabama never got any closer than six points for the rest of the game.

“I think the feeling just with the group is it’s body blows, it’s body blows, it’s continue to guard, continue to rebound, execute our offense,” Hurley said. “Eventually there will be a breaking point opportunity that will present itself, especially in this tournament.”

UConn had five players in double figures led by Castle with a team-high 21 points. Clingan scored 18 points and had four blocks while Karaban and Cam Spencer each had 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Tristen Newtown finished with 12 points.

Alabama, playing in their first-ever Final Four, was led by Mark Sears, who sank a game-high 24 points with Nelson finishing with 19 points. Aaron Estrada scored 13 for the Tide.

UConn returns to the national championship game for the sixth time since 1999. The Huskies are 5-0 in title games, including 3-0 under Jim Calhoun and 1-0 under Kevin Ollie and current head coach Dan Hurley. UConn has won 11 consecutive NCAA Tournament games over the last two years — all with double-digit victories.

“We just stayed true to our identity. The coach preaches every day. If we focus on the defense and the rebounding, everything else can go our way,” Karaban said. “It really starts on the defensive end with us, get out in transition. Offensively we’re so unselfish. We’ll pass up good shots for great shots. We have so much trust in one another.”

With exceptional three-point shooting, Alabama (25-12) stayed with Connecticut in the first half. The Tide shot 73 percent from three-point range (8-of-11) led by Sears with 11 points in the opening 20 minutes. UConn led 44-40 at the half.

The Huskies scored the first two baskets of the second half to extend their lead to eight, 48-40 before Alabama went on a 7-0 run to cut the lead to one.

UConn responded with a 7-0 run of their own with baskets from Clingan, a three-pointer from Caravan and a slam dunk from Spencer to lead by eight, 55-47 with 15:41 left in the game.

Alabama tied the game with a 9-1 run with Sears hitting a three-point shot and Nelson scoring six points with baskets in the lane.

But the Huskies refused to yield. An 11-2 surge put them in control for good. After Castle’s two free throws with 12:05 left, he drove to the basket with 11:29 remaining to extend the lead to  60-56.

Samson Johnson slammed home a basket off a nice pass from Spencer and Caravan ripped down an offensive rebound and put it back in for a 64-56 lead. Newtown’s three-point shot with 8:20 left gave UConn a 67-58 advantage.

UConn outscored Alabama, 30-16 in the final 12:05 of the game, converting on 12 of 20 shots from the floor. The Tide sank only five of their last 23 shots in the game.

“Everyone (of us) came to UConn to try to be a part of history,” Clingan said. “We’re one step closer to our goal. But none of us in this locker room are satisfied. We know we have a lot of work to do, a big matchup on Monday.”

“They were really, really hard to guard. I was thrilled with the way we defended, the way we closed the game out.” Hurley said.


Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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