LAS VEGAS — A juggernaut makes its name by winning pretty, obliterating overmatched opponents with pace, force and poise. But the NCAA tournament has a knack for humbling its most talented teams. Inevitably, shots don’t fall, fouls mount and rival coaches pull out all the stops.
This daring gambit worked initially, as Jackson had to decide whether he should shoot when left wide open while his teammates struggled to find space to work with inside. But the Huskies, the closest thing to a juggernaut left in a tournament that has lost all of its No. 1 seeds before the Final Four, made the necessary adjustments to run away with an 82-54 victory at T-Mobile Arena. Connecticut will face the winner of Sunday’s Midwest Region final clash between Miami and Texas in Houston next weekend.
“We’ve figured that out,” Huskies Coach Dan Hurley said of the decision to neglect Jackson. “That doesn’t work any more. To be honest with you, I made coaching mistakes during the season, or it just took me too long to get Andre to the places where he could still be one of the biggest impact players in terms of winning and losing. Once I got better as a coach and [put] him in a position to be successful, we’ve unlocked that code and he’s been unbelievable.”
Jackson’s ability to make use of his newfound space was central to Connecticut’s ability to unlock Gonzaga’s unorthodox defense. As the first half wore on, he slipped to the basket with well-timed cuts to finish layups set up by standout forward Adama Sanogo. Then, with halftime approaching, he increased his activity on the offensive glass, tapping back rebounds to teammates and extending possessions by chasing down loose balls.
Gonzaga briefly claimed a 22-21 lead with just over six minutes to go in the first half, but Jackson responded by assisting teammates for four three-pointers in the run-up to the break. For the first time all night, Connecticut found its groove, as Jackson turned a broken play into a three for Jordan Hawkins and then found Alex Karaban for another triple at the halftime buzzer.
“Early on [this season], I was taking it personal a lot,” Jackson said. “I was looking at [being ignored] like disrespect and I tried to prove them wrong, that I’m a shooter. Coach taught me how to find different spots on the court. Setting some screens, popping and slipping, and learning how to play the game in a whole new way. I watch people like Draymond Green do stuff like that as well. I learned how to counter whatever they do.”
Down 39-32 at halftime, the Bulldogs needed another rally, like the double-digit comeback they authored against UCLA in the Sweet 16. Alas, Timme picked up his third and fourth fouls within the first three minutes of the second half, further handcuffing Gonzaga’s offense.
It was a frustrating night for Timme from start to finish, as he appeared bothered by Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, Connecticut’s 7-foot-2 backup center. Timme missed his first three shots as Gonzaga went scoreless for the game’s first two minutes, and he was called for traveling twice in the first half. The three-time all-American couldn’t pass the buck to the referees for his foul trouble, as he picked up his fourth with a misguided elbow as he attempted to fight for rebounding position. Afterward, Timme said that the Huskies were “the better team” and that “the refs didn’t control that game.”
Timme, who became the first player in NCAA history to score at least 20 points in 10 tournament games, finished his illustrious college career with just 12 points (on 5-for-14 shooting), departing to a hug from Coach Mark Few and a hearty ovation from the Bulldogs’ fan section.
“I’d do anything for Gonzaga,” he said. "I always will. This isn’t a goodbye; it’s a see you later. I always want to be around the program and coach. It’s a special place. I loved it here.”
While the Huskies’ defense held the Bulldogs’ No. 1-ranked offense to its lowest scoring total of the season, Hurley’s offense never looked back once it got up to speed — turning what had been a back-and-forth affair into a one-sided blowout midway through the second half. Hawkins, a sophomore guard from Gaithersburg, poured in a game-high 20 points, including six three-pointers. Jackson, Connecticut’s energizer, finished his do-everything night with eight points, nine rebounds and 10 assists.
All told, Connecticut shot 11-31 from deep and stretched its lead to as many as 33 points in the second half; Gonzaga, by contrast, shot just 33.3 percent overall and managed just 2-for-20 shooting from beyond the arc.
“U-Conn. was just terrific,” Few said. “We didn’t have any answers, especially once everything didn’t bounce our way. We can’t absorb a game like that when our offense is as bad as it was tonight. They’ve got great size. They have depth. Their bigs bring different qualities. Their guards are really talented. Hawkins is just a terrific catch-and-shoot guy."
Though the Huskies (29-8) entered the season unranked, they will arrive in Houston as the probable title favorites. Connecticut is the only remaining program to have previously won a championship, and its experienced roster proved capable of improvising and dictating the terms of engagement against a top-tier opponent in Gonzaga (31-6).
“To do what we did to a program of that caliber, we just played at a super high level,” Hurley said. “We’re surprised by the margin of victory, but not surprised by where we’re going next.”
The question entering Saturday was how Connecticut would respond when tested. With that one answered so swiftly and convincingly, let’s ask: Who will be able to push them for the full 40 minutes?