The Connecticut men’s basketball team has endured so many tribulations in recent weeks. The Huskies walked into soiled hotel rooms when they arrived in Las Vegas. Their bus was broken into while they were at practice. And Jordan Hawkins, their star guard, was curled up on the floor of his hotel room on Friday, stricken with illness and complaining about some calamari.
As for difficulties on the basketball court?
Those were trifling matters for the Huskies, who, after blitzing their way to the title game, showed they had a rock-solid chin and cool hand in turning back San Diego State, 76-59, to win their fifth title in the past 25 years.
This wasn’t another freewheeling romp, but a grinding effort in which the Huskies relied on their defense to take control before making enough plays down the stretch — and being near perfect at the free-throw line, making 24 of 27 — to repel the game but scattershot Aztecs.
Tristen Newton scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead Connecticut, which also got 17 points and 10 rebounds from Adama Sanogo and 16 points from Hawkins — including a critical 3-pointer that stymied San Diego State.
With 30 seconds remaining, Coach Dan Hurley removed his starters, greeting each one of them with a bearhug as they returned to the bench. When the final buzzer sounded, Newton jumped off the edge of the elevated court and into the arms of family members wearing his No. 2 jersey.
San Diego State, which had never before advanced past the round of 16, was trying to replicate what Kansas did a year ago, rallying from 15 points down in the second half to claim a championship. But the Aztecs just did not have enough offense, shooting 32.2 percent from the field and missing 14 consecutive shots in the first half, when the Huskies seized control.
The Huskies looked nothing like a team that finished fourth in the Big East Conference during the regular season, winning their six tournament games by 24, 15, 23, 28, 13 and 17 points.
“The group had a lot of confidence for how we played the majority of the season,” Hurley said on the court after the game. “We knew we were the best team in the tournament going in, and we just had to play like it.”
After Joey Calcaterra buried a 3-pointer to put Connecticut ahead, 56-41, the Aztecs mustered a final charge. Jaedon LeDee, a chiseled forward playing in his hometown, scored a pair of baskets in the lane that prompted a Huskies timeout.
After Hawkins left a jumper short, Keshad Johnson knocked in a 3-pointer from the wing and Darrion Trammell followed that with a steal and a layup, and San Diego State fans brought the cavernous arena to life, having crawled to down 56-50.
The Aztecs would close to 60-55 with less than six minutes left, but Hawkins, curling off a screen near the top of the arc, unfurled his silky shot, swishing a 3-pointer that kept San Diego State at bay.
It was an orderly ending for this unpredictable, hugger-mugger of a tournament.
Three neophytes reached the Final Four, including Florida Atlantic, which plays in a band box of a gym and came within a whisker of being the lowest seed — a No. 9 — to play in the championship game.
Fairleigh Dickinson had provided a signature moment when it became the second No. 16 seed to win a first-round game, upending Purdue. The other No. 1 seeds — Kansas, Houston and Alabama — were all gone by the regional finals, something that had never happened before. Alabama had been trying to win its first national title while the team was enveloped in an a murder investigation.
Alabama was eliminated by San Diego State, whose relentless, physical defense exacts a cost on teams who are just being introduced to it. The Aztecs had shown their mettle in the tournament, trailing Alabama by 9, Creighton by 8 and Florida Atlantic by 14 on their way to title game.
San Diego State believed its defense could pry the ball loose from Connecticut, which does not have a true point guard, and that it had the strength to handle Sanogo and the savvy to get his 7-foot-2 backup Donovan Clingan in foul trouble.
Those assessments were largely correct in the first half. The Aztecs forced eight turnovers, Clingan picked up two fouls in just over five minutes, and Sanogo, though he managed 7 points and 6 rebounds in the half, was hardly as dominant a force as he has been throughout the tournament.
Sanogo, who is observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, does not eat food or drink water from dawn to sundown. He eats protein-packed meals, hibachi steak and chicken with fruit, after sunset, and rises around 5 a.m. to eat another meal before going back to sleep. On game nights, he subsists on lighter fare: coconut water and fruit.
“I just want to say anything is possible,” said Sanogo, who grew up in Mali, and whose ambition was to further his education in France until an uncle living in the United States suggested that he was enough of a basketball prospect to come.
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