Connecticut continues March Madness domination as leaving legacy provides motivation

BOSTON — Give San Diego State credit for hanging with No. 1 Connecticut for 20 minutes, which is exactly 20 more minutes than the Huskies were challenged by No. 16 Stetson and No. 9 Northwestern in the first two rounds of the NCAA men’s tournament. While not worthy of a banner, to make the Huskies drop even a bead of sweat qualifies as a victory, relatively speaking.

But if UConn is a freight train, the Aztecs are a stalled car stuck on a track: strong enough to provide only a hint of pushback before getting blown into smithereens.

“When we’re playing at our best, it’s hard to beat us,” said sophomore center Donovan Clingan.

In a flip to the team’s first two NCAA men’s tournament blowouts, this one saw UConn tread water for the first half before turning things on in the second. Ahead 40-31 at the break, the Huskies hit a new gear coming out of the locker room and scored an 82-52 win to advance to Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup against No. 3 Illinois.

The Huskies had four players in double figures, led by Cam Spencer’s 18 points, and were able to withstand an off game of sorts from Clingan, who battled early foul trouble, struggled finishing near the rim and had eight pounds and eight rebounds.

“We went into halftime, like, ‘We have to turn this up to another level.’ And we did that in the second half,” sophomore forward Alex Karaban said.

That the Aztecs hung around in this rematch of last year’s national championship game might’ve put an almost imperceptible, pinhole-size dent in the Huskies’ sense of invincibility without impacting what feels like the inevitable: UConn storming through this tournament to become the eighth program to win back-to-back titles.

Already, Thursday night’s win makes UConn the first defending champ to reach the Elite Eight since Florida in 2007.

“This team has defied what past champions have done and taken this program to a completely different level,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said.

These blowout wins to open the NCAA men’s tournament has largely placed a check on Hurley’s emotions, which on game day typically cycle through three similar stages: angry, angrier and angriest.

“He doesn’t want any shortage of the culture,” Karaban said. “If he sees slipups, he’s going to let you know. He’s brutally honest with everybody, which is why we all came here to play for him.”

While leaving onlookers in awe of UConn’s postseason dominance — the nine tournament wins in a row since last March have come by an average of just under 23 points, with none decided by fewer than 13 points — Hurley continues to search for ways to motivate a team that even amid this run seems capable of finding another gear.

“We suck at winning close games, so you have to go with the alternative,” Hurley joked. “No, I think the group, we have killer instincts. We play every possession with great desperation.

“Obviously we’re very comfortable in tournament play. We’re hard to prepare for.”

Through three tournament games, at least, Hurley and the Huskies have found their biggest competition in the mirror.

At halftime against Steton, Hurley told CBS the Huskies had to “grow up a little bit. The last couple of minutes I didn’t like.”

“Everything should be automatic this time of year,” he said. “It’s human nature, I guess, but just to throttle down like that late, that’s not championship level.”

This with UConn up 33 points, the largest halftime lead in tournament play in program history and the second-largest halftime in the past 20 tournaments.

Hurley then ripped into his team during a timeout against Northwestern, imploring the Huskies to play up to their standard as the Wildcats essentially played them to a draw in the second half. In the locker room at the break against SDSU, they stressed the need for more confidence on offense and a better job on the offensive glass.

Maybe UConn is aware of the fact it has thus far played opponents that finished the regular season in second place in the Atlantic Sun, fourth in the Big Ten and fifth in the Mountain West. In Illinois, the Huskies will find an opponent with the length and depth to strain the defending champs.

But the reverse is also true: Does either opponent really have what it takes to handle all that UConn brings to the table? Does anyone?

“Honestly, each opponent is different, so you have to have a different style for each opponent,” said senior guard Hassan Diarra. “We’re prepared for anything that comes our way.”

That tougher test awaits on Saturday and beyond, should the Huskies get back to the Final Four. But as the lopsided wins mount, what’s become clear is that this is UConn’s tournament to lose. The chance to make history might be the team’s biggest motivator.

“These guys right now are leaving a legacy in a place that’s hard to leave a legacy,” Hurley said. “It’s been a historical season in a tough place to make history. They’re galvanized by that. It’s special.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Connecticut continues March Madness dominance motivated by repeat bid

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