NCAA women's tournament • Analysis
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For Connecticut, Final Four vs. Miami is another breeze

Huskies 72, Hurricanes 59

Connecticut guard Andre Jackson Jr. dunks over Miami forward Norchad Omier (right) during the second half of a Final Four game on Saturday in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)
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HOUSTON — The Connecticut Huskies have glided through this NCAA tournament with no need for any of those March Madness heroics that become part of a program’s lore. They have the skill to create those late, game-changing highlights; they just haven’t had the opportunity. That would require some tension — at least one matchup with a narrow margin down the stretch — and the Connecticut men’s basketball team refuses to slip into such circumstances.

The fourth-seeded Huskies keep dominating and keep advancing, even here in the national semifinal against Miami. As the caliber of the opponent improves from one round to the next, Connecticut’s control hasn’t wavered. The Huskies stormed past No. 5 Miami for a 72-59 victory at NRG Stadium, and for Connecticut fans, Saturday night’s celebration began well before all 40 minutes had drained from the clock.

The Huskies will face fifth-seeded San Diego State, which defeated Florida Atlantic on a buzzer-beater, in the national championship game Monday. Connecticut may not have a thrilling tournament moment — nothing like the Aztecs’ jumper at the horn earlier Friday — but a scene that includes the Huskies lifting a national championship trophy would certainly fill that void.

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The Huskies have won their five tournament games by an average of 21 points. This Final Four matchup turned out to be their narrowest victory. Yet the Huskies still cruised, winning by 13 points and navigating a second half that left little doubt they would advance.

“We were just all over our identity,” Coach Dan Hurley said.

The Huskies played hard, and that’s “our calling card,” Hurley said. They dominated the glass with a 41-32 rebounding edge, and their stout defense stifled Miami. And then they had scoring options in the paint and on the perimeter.

“There’s nowhere where we’re weak as a team,” Hurley said.

Connecticut has shown that all month and did so again here in the national semifinals.

The Hurricanes tried to make a push after Connecticut’s lead had ballooned to 20 points not long after halftime. Isaiah Wong’s three-pointer with 11:40 remaining narrowed Miami’s gap to eight points. The Huskies answered. A Donovan Clingan layup, then a Jordan Hawkins three-pointer quickly lifted Connecticut back to one of those comfortable margins that have become familiar. Other than that short blip after Wong’s three — a stretch that lasted just 35 seconds — the Huskies had a double-digit lead the entire second half.

“The group has shown their quality so many times in terms of the level that we could play at,” said Hurley, whose team slumped in January and lost six times during an eight-game stretch. “It’s a battle-tested team.”

Connecticut leaned on forward Adama Sanogo, a 6-foot-9 force in the paint who proved he also can hit three-pointers. Sanogo delivered an impressive performance with a game-high 21 points on a 9-for-11 clip from the field, including the two shots from beyond the arc in the early minutes. Sanogo added 10 rebounds and two blocks. And when he needs a break, Hurley can call upon Clingan, a 7-foot-2 freshman center who ensures Connecticut always has a dominating presence around the rim.

Hurley called the Huskies’ early offensive burst “a little bit of fool’s gold.” Sanogo made multiple three-pointers in only four other games this season. Miami tied the score at the 8:20 mark, and Hurley said he thought his team needed to commit to attacking the paint and to “get our defensive edge back.” Connecticut then generated an 8-0 burst, and its lead kept growing.

The Huskies climbed ahead without much production from two key players. Andre Jackson Jr., a versatile wing and defensive maestro, picked up two early fouls and played only four minutes in the first half. Hawkins, the team’s second-leading scorer, has fought through an illness and had just three points on three field goal attempts before the break. Didn’t matter. The Huskies still bounded toward the locker room with a 37-24 advantage after Alex Karaban hit a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer.

And then in the second half, Hawkins broke through with 10 points, Jackson had six and Connecticut looked like a well-rounded squad with a bevy of talented options.

The Hurricanes slumped into the hole after making just 9 of 36 attempts from the field during the first half, and their improved clip after the break (11 for 26) couldn’t make up for those woes. Miami finished with 15 missed layups, mistakes few teams could afford against a program rolling the way the Huskies have been.

“We were never in sync offensively,” Miami Coach Jim Larrañaga said. “Being in the Final Four for the first time in school’s history, the guys being a little bit anxious, and we really never were able to just relax and play our game. We were pretty much out of character the whole night.”

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Connecticut — which has four titles in its previous five trips to the Final Four, all since 1999 — has a championship pedigree the other Final Four participants lacked. When Hurley, previously the coach at Rhode Island and Wagner, took over the program in 2018, the Huskies were just five years removed from a national title, but they were coming off back-to-back losing seasons.

He had to rebuild. The Huskies reached the tournament the past two seasons but lost in the first round each time (despite a No. 7 seed in 2021 and a No. 5 seed last year). Now Hurley has all the right pieces. This team’s midseason rut may have caused it to slip to a lower seed in the tournament, but its performances — dominant and anti-climactic — have proved that trouble is well in the past and a championship might be waiting just ahead in the future.