In an NCAA Tournament that was defined by big shots, upsets and improbable runs, Monday night’s national championship game followed the script.
The fourth-seeded UConn Huskies entered the night as the heavy favorites over fifth-seed San Diego State and left NRG Stadium as the national champions following a dominant 76-59 win in a national title game nobody saw coming.
The Huskies are now a perfect 5-for-5 in national championship games dating back to 1999, and this is their second title in Houston after also winning in 2011.
“Means a lot,” said UConn senior guard Tristen Newton, who is from El Paso. “Great credit to the coaches and my teammates. The vision we had when I came here was to win a national championship, get to the Final Four and win a national championship. And I came here just to do that. And just real blessed and thankful for these guys around me.”
The Huskies, who are now tied with Duke for the most national title wins since 1985, did it this season when nobody but them thought that they could. They began the season unranked, struggled mightily in January and with a coach who had not won an NCAA Tournament game, but played unbelievably down the stretch to emerge as clearly the Tournament’s best team.
UConn went on a 6-0 run through the NCAA Tournament and left some quality teams without any answers. In The Final Four, in particular, the Huskies dominated a Miami team that had sent both No.1 University of Houston and No.2 University of Texas home packing in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively.
And Monday night, they finished up business with a convincing win over a scrappy San Diego State squad that knocked off No.1 overall seed Alabama and Creighton to make it to Houston. Now the Huskies take their place among the elite programs in college basketball and the Dan Hurley era now has its first national championship.
These Huskies stepped out of the shadows of legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun and the UConn women’s program, which is a perennial power under coach Geno Auriemma.
“Coach Calhoun, he’s had his hand in this one, as well,” said Hurley who had the program’s four previous national title trophies removed from the basketball offices this season to motivate his team to get its own. “I wish he could have been here for it because I know he’s been a big part of helping us get here. When you’re in that Werth Champions Center and Geno and with everything that Geno’s done and what they do on a yearly basis and all their hardware.
“And it’s just when you’re in a place like that, it’s a little bit empty until you feel like you can join the club. I feel like now we’ve held up our end of the bargain that the women’s team has been carrying for so long since forever. It seems like. And Coach Calhoun and Kevin Ollie, Geno, it feels good to accomplish what they’ve done.”
The Huskies broke through Monday night with outstanding performances from Jordan Hawkins (16 points) and Newton (game-high 19 points), but the night belonged to their most dominant player this season, junior forward Adama Sanogo.
Sanogo finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds to earn his place as one of the elite players to come through the program.
“He’s obviously cemented himself into the pantheon of greatest, obviously, the greatest big guys with all the production and back-to-back First Team All-League,” Hurley said of Sanogo. “And now this, to have the national championship just puts him in a position in one of the most storied programs in college basketball. He’s an all-time great.”
Keshad Johnson paced the Aztecs with 14 points while Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell scored 13 points apiece in a game in which their team led early and threatened the Huskies’ double-digit lead late in the second half. UConn came away with even more respect for San Diego State than they had before the championship game.
“Coming into the game, we knew San Diego State was a good team,” Sanogo said. “We were not surprised about their run. We knew they could make a run. We took a timeout and wanted to make sure they didn’t do the same things again.”
After an impressive start, Monday night’s game started to get away from the Aztecs early as UConn applied tremendous defensive pressure for which they had no answer. San Diego State was held to just 28% shooting from the field while committing nine turnovers while the Huskies converted 50% from the field in the first half and took a 36-24 lead into halftime.
The Huskies, who led by as many as 16 points in the first half, received big first-half performances from Newton along with Sanogo and Hawkins. Newton led the way with nine points and Sanogo and Hawkins both added seven points each.
San Diego State led by four points briefly early in the first half but then went cold from the field. Aztecs went nearly 11 minutes without converting a field goal during that time, and as a consequence, they saw their 10-6 lead morph into an 11-point deficit against UConn’s stout defense.
The loss ended an improbable run for the Aztecs, who knocked off No.1 overall Alabama and Creighton to make it to The Final Four. Had the veteran-led Aztecs won, it would have been a first for their program and for the Mountain West.
“I’m proud of our guys,” SDSU coach Brian Dutcher said. “These guys have given me everything they had.”