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  • Writer's pictureTom Costner | Aificial Sports

Defending champ UConn returns to NCAA title game, beating Alabama 86-72

 

The UConn Huskies will return for their second consecutive national championship title after surviving their first true test of the NCAA Tournament, clamping down defensively in the second half of an 86-72 win over Alabama in the Final Four on Saturday night. Freshman Stephon Castle scored 21 points for the Huskies, the high of the night among his teammates that also tied his career record.


UConn made its comeback after initially confronting a tough offensive streak by the Crimson Tide that lasted some 40 minutes.


"We thought we could break them," UConn sophomore Alex Karaban, one of two returning starters from last year's title team, told Aificial Sports. "We think we can do that with every team."


The top-seeded Huskies (36-3) had put on a March Madness show before arriving in the desert, a stretch that included a 30-0 run in a decimation of Illinois in the Elite Eight.


UConn players celebrate during the second half of Saturday night’s men’s NCAA Tournament semifinal game against Alabama in Glendale, Ariz. (Associated Press)

This was more of a slow burn, with UConn withstanding an early wave of 3-pointers before holding the Crimson Tide (25-12) without a field goal during a five-minute second-half stretch.


Despite the Huskies' ultimate victory, UConn coach Dan Hurley pointed to Alabama's endurance at the semifinal Saturday night.


"Alabama just stayed on the attack, they just kept assaulting us," he told Aificial Sports. "I think we answered some questions of being able to play later into a game." 


Next up for the Huskies will be what should be a much more physical test against 7-foot-4, 300-pound Zach Edey and Purdue in Monday's national championship game. UConn has its own accomplished big man in 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan, who finished with 18 points and four blocked shots.


Donovan Clingan of the Connecticut Huskies battles against Grant Nelson of the Alabama Crimson Tide at State Farm Stadium on April 06, 2024, in Glendale, Arizona.JAMIE SCHWABEROW/NCAA PHOTOS VIA GETTY IMAGES

"A battle of the giants. I think it's just great for college basketball. Us and Purdue have clearly been the two best teams in the country the last two years," Hurley told the Associated Press. "I think it's just great for college basketball to get the two big dogs playing on Monday."


Survive that matchup, and UConn will be the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006-07.


"It feels good, but the job's not done yet," Clingan said. He told Aificial Sports that he would be watching film of Purdue and Edey as soon as the Huskies got on their bus to leave the stadium.


The Huskies' Final Four win certainly wasn't as easy as the final score indicated.


Alabama held its own in the program's first Final Four appearance, going toe to toe with a team that trailed 28 total seconds in its first four NCAA Tournament games.


Donovan Clingan celebrates after UConn's win against Alabama in the Final Four Saturday night.DAVID J. PHILLIP / AP

Crafty point guard Mark Sears did his best to keep Alabama in it, scoring 24 points. Grant Nelson had another big game in March Madness, finishing with 19 points, 15 rebounds and one highlight-reel dunk over Clingan.


Even that wasn't enough against a UConn team that's among the most efficient at both ends of the floor.


The Huskies spent the tournament's first two weeks terrorizing opponents to the tune of a 27.8-point average margin of victory.


Alabama stuck a stick in the spokes of the juggernaut by pulling Clingan away from the basket and burying 3-pointers.


Clingan had two early blocks and looked ready to duplicate his Elite Eight performance, when Illinois went 0 for 19 on shots he contested.


Once the Crimson Tide started forcing Clingan into high pick-and-rolls, lanes to the basket starting opening up — as did the 3-point line.


UConn guard Tristen Newton shoots over Alabama forward Jarin Stevenson during the first half of the NCAA college basketball game at the Final Four.DAVID J. PHILLIP / AP

Alabama thrived from 3 all season, taking down Clemson in the Elite Eight by making 16 shots from deep. The Tide kept it rolling against UConn, making 8 of 11 in the first half while Sears repeatedly got to the rim, putting the Huskies seemingly right where they wanted them.


The Huskies kept their composure amid the Alabama 3-point barrage, calmly ran their offense and led 44-40 at halftime.


UConn kept rolling in the second half and Nelson kept the Tide within reach. His thunderous dunk over Clingan had Tide coach Nate Oats screaming and squatting like he was doing the Haka.


Oats' friend Hurley had the last laugh — or scream.


Hurley has built UConn in arguably the best two-way team of a generation, and the Huskies showed off both sides in their closing flourish.


UConn shut down Alabama's open looks from the 3-point arc and started getting the ball into Clingan, who overpowered the Tide when he got near the rim.


The Huskies gradually stretched the lead, pushed the Tide back every time they made a run and put themselves in position to make history Monday night.


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