A suffocating defense and another big game from forward Adama Sanogo lifted No. 4 Connecticut past No. 5 San Diego State 76-59 for the fifth national championship in its program history.
The win completes an epic and historic run through this NCAA men’s basketball tournament and supports the Huskies’ case for being viewed as the most successful Division I program of the past 25 years.
For most of Monday night at Houston’s NRG Stadium as through the first five games of tournament play, UConn made it look easy.
San Diego State led 10-8 after almost four minutes but would go without a field goal for the ensuing 11 minutes of game time, as the Huskies’ length inside disrupted the Aztecs’ offensive flow and turned that narrow deficit into a commanding 36-24 halftime lead.
Both teams struggled to find a foothold coming out of halftime as the game turned into a foul-heavy slog, benefiting the Huskies. UConn was in the bonus after eight minutes and made 20 of 21 free throws in the second half to keep San Diego State at bay.
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The stop-and-start flow and defensive focus in the second half sparked memories of the Huskies’ 2011 championship game win against Butler. The Bulldogs shot just 18.8% from the field in that loss. San Diego State did slightly better at 32.2%, including just 28.6% in the first half.
But the Aztecs began to climb back into the game with a 9-0 run to draw within 56-50 with 7:40 left, wobbling UConn for the first time in this tournament, and then trailed 60-55 with 5:19 remaining. SDSU had overcome halftime deficits of six points in the Elite Eight against No. 6 Creighton and seven points in the national semifinal against No. 9 Florida Atlantic, winning each game by a single point.
In the end, though, the Huskies’ combination of shooting and interior defense was too much for the Aztecs to overcome.
While SDSU struggled to do anything in the paint and misfired from deep — the Aztecs hit 6 of 23 attempts from 3-point range — the Huskies’ offense was again anchored by the inside-out duo of Sanogo and guard Hawkins.
A potential first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft, Hawkins finished with 16 points on 5 of 9 shooting. His 3-pointer with 5:04 left gave the Huskies a 63-55 lead and provided the perfect response to the Aztecs’ run. Fellow guard Tristen Newton had a team-high 19 points along with 10 rebounds and 4 assists, offsetting a game-high five turnovers.
But the biggest key was a deep frontcourt anchored by Sanogo, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. He posted a double-double in four tournament games, including the last three.
The Huskies’ parade of big bodies crippled the Aztecs’ offensive game plan and made almost every possession an exercise in futility.
San Diego State was led by forward Keshad Johnson’s 14 points. Guards Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell finished with 13 points.
For UConn, this national championship joins titles in 1999, 2004, 2011 and 2014. The Huskies are 5-0 in championship games.
The win also moves UConn past Kansas and into a tie with Duke and Indiana for the fourth-most rings in Division I. UCLA leads with 11, followed by Kentucky with eight and North Carolina with six.
No other team has more than three titles since 1999. All five of the Huskies’ wins have come since the last national championship for Indiana (1987) and UCLA (1995).
Three coaches are responsible for the program’s five titles: Jim Calhoun in 1999, 2004 and 2011, Kevin Ollie in 2014, and now Dan Hurley.
Inheriting a program mired in negativity following Ollie’s controversial dismissal in 2018, Hurley posted a losing record in his first season and had his second year cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tournament bids in the past two seasons ended in the opening round.
But this year’s team rose as high as No. 2 in the USA TODAY Sports men’s college basketball poll and spent all but the first two polls of the season in the Top 25.
And then the Huskies reached the postseason and put together one of the most dominant runs since the tournament expanded in 1985.
They beat No. 13 Iona 87-63 in the first round, outscoring the Gaels 50-24 in the second half. In the second round, they beat No. 5 Saint Mary’s 70-55.
UConn rolled through the second weekend, beating No. 8 Arkansas 88-65 in the Sweet 16 and No. 3 Gonzaga 82-54 in the Elite Eight to reach the Final Four. After beating No. 5 Miami 72-59 in the national semifinal, UConn became the sixth team since 2000 to reach the championship game by defeating every opponent by a double-digit margin.
Playing in the West Regional, the Huskies were able to miss No. 1 Kansas, which lost in the second round, and No. 2 UCLA, which fell to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
Regardless of the competition, however, this UConn run will go down in history. The Huskies are the first team since the tournament expanded to win the title by defeating every opponent by 13 or more points.