ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — UConn decided to return to its roots five years ago, hiring a former Big East guard as coach and then a couple years later returning to the conference where it became a national power.
Now the Huskies are back in the Sweet 16, looking like the beasts of the Big East again.
Adama Sanogo scored 24 points and Jordan Hawkins delivered from the 3-point line in the second half as UConn pulled away from Saint Mary’s for a 70-55 win on Sunday that put the Huskies in the Sweet 16 for the first time in nine years.
No. 4 seed UConn (27-8) advanced to the West Regional in Las Vegas on Thursday. Next up is eighth-seeded Arkansas, which knocked off No. 1 seed Kansas.
For the second straight game, the Huskies buried an opponent after playing a close first half. UConn outscored Iona and Saint Mary’s by a combined 86-49 in the second half in Albany this weekend.
“Eventually our depth, elite rebounding, top-20 defense, top-five offense, with the depth, I think we’re able to break some teams,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley, a former Seton Hall guard from New Jersey who was hired in 2018.
Sanogo followed his 29-point game in the Huskies’ NCAA tourney opener with another powerful and efficient performance in the paint. The 245-pound junior was 11 for 16 from the floor and grabbed eight rebounds, dominating a big-man matchup with Mitchell Saxen (six points, three rebounds and four fouls).
UConn used a 14-2 spurt, highlighted by a 3 from Hawkins with 11:28 left in the second half, to go up 51-40.
Hawkins had been scoreless to that point, but he added another 3 coming off a screen moments later to make it 56-45, and the “Let’s Go Huskies!” chants started to reverberate throughout MVP Arena.
“It felt great hitting those shots,” Hawkins said. “Finally found a rhythm.”
Hawkins wasn’t done, making back-to-back 3s to make it 62-47 with 6:38 left. He finished with 12 points.
Meanwhile, the Huskies defense was clamping down on the Gaels, who were held under 60 points for just the fourth time this season.
“We started to turn the ball over a little bit more, which led to them hitting some shots in transition, which really opened up the game for them,” Johnson said.
The Huskies last played in the second weekend of the tournament in 2014, when they won the most recent — and most surprising — of four national titles in a 15-year span. The first three of those titles came as a member of the Big East under coach Jim Calhoun, and all went through the West Region.