UConn survives Alabama test, returns to national title game


GLENDALE, Ariz. — Tristen Netwon waited for the ball screen up top, then hit cutting big man Donovan Clingan down the lane for an emphatic dunk. The Connecticut bench exploded.

Although it took longer than usual, the Huskies pulled away from Alabama on Saturday night to post an 86-72 win at State Farm Stadium. UConn advances to face Purdue in Monday night’s national championship game, giving the Huskies a chance to become the first school to repeat as men’s basketball national champs since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

The final step will not be easy. The Boilermakers beat NC State 63-50 in Saturday night’s first national semifinals matchup, a contest in which they did not trail.

The title game will feature a battle of big men — 7-foot-4 Zach Edey of Purdue and 7-foot-2 Clingan. It also will showcase two coaches who kept their teams in the Top 5 of the AP poll for the entire season. UConn spent seven weeks at No. 1, Purdue spent five.

Entering Saturday, the Huskies had not been challenged in this tournament. They’d had beaten Stetson, Northwestern, San Diego State and Illinois by an average of 27.8 points. Their only hiccup came on the flight to the Final Four, as mechanical and weather issues delayed the team’s arrival until 3 a.m. Thursday.

That changed against Alabama. For 30-plus minutes, the Crimson Tide tested the Huskies (36-3). With 12:44 left in the second half, Grant Nelson hit a soft jump hook to tie the contest 56-56. Then the game turned.

UConn guard Stephon Castle hit two foul shots and scored off penetration. Samson Johnson rolled to the basket and dunked. Alex Karaban put back a miss. Eight straight points. Connecticut had its largest lead at 64-56. Alabama coach Nate Oats called time. It didn’t matter.

The Huskies played with poise in the final minutes, limiting the 3-point barrage that had hurt them in the first half. Steady from the opening tip, Castle led UConn with 21 points. Clingan added 18 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots. Newton had 12 points and nine assists. Karaban and Cam Spencer each contributed 14 points.

UConn shot 53 percent in the second half.

Alabama, competing in the first Final Four in school history, finished 25-12. Mark Sears led the Crimson Tide with 24 points. After making 8 of 11 from 3-point range in the first half, they made just 3-12 in the second.

On Monday, UConn and coach Danny Hurley will try to repeat as national champs. Over the past 50 years, this has been a near-impossible task. Other than Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators, the only other school to repeat is Duke, which did so in 1992. Hurley’s older brother, Bobby, was a standout point guard on those teams.

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(Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

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