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UConn into Elite Eight with 30-point win in rematch vs. SDSU – ESPN

Tristen Newton lobs it up to Stephon Castle for a dunk (0:20)

UConn gets out in transition as Tristen Newton gets the steal and lobs it up to Stephon Castle for a two-handed jam. (0:20)

  • Jeff Borzello, ESPN Staff WriterMar 28, 2024, 11:55 PM ET


    • Basketball recruiting insider.
    • Joined ESPN in 2014.
    • Graduate of University of Delaware.

BOSTON — There’s been a tongue-in-cheek mantra for UConn over the past two seasons: The Huskies can’t win close games.

In reality, it’s not that they can’t win one- or two-possession games — it just rarely comes down to the final minutes for Dan Hurley’s team. Earlier this season, the Huskies set the record for most consecutive nonconference victories by double digits. They lead the nation in scoring margin.

And on Thursday, UConn laid down another marker. The top-seeded Huskies dominated No. 5 San Diego State 82-52 in a national championship rematch, advancing to the Elite Eight with the largest margin of victory in a Sweet 16 game since 2017.

“We suck at winning close games, so you have to go with the alternative,” Hurley joked after the win.

After three NCAA tournament games, UConn has trailed for a grand total of 28 seconds. The Huskies have led by double digits for 58:27 of a possible 60 second-half minutes. They’ve won their three games by an average of 28.7 points.

For a program whose run to last year’s national championship featured one of the all-time dominant performances — six wins by an average of 20 points — the Huskies have gone into a different gear.

“We just have people that just are desperate to win more,” Hurley said. “We have winners. We have ‘we’ guys. We have also talked about legacy. … These guys right now are leaving a legacy in a place that’s hard to leave a legacy. It’s been a historical season in a tough place to make history. They’re galvanized by that. It’s special.”

San Diego State did a better job of keeping the game competitive than UConn’s first two NCAA tournament opponents, at least early in the contest. The Aztecs took an early lead and went shot-for-shot with the Huskies for most of the first half, with star big man Jaedon LeDee dominating on the interior against Donovan Clingan en route to 15 points in the opening 20 minutes.

UConn took an 11-point lead nine minutes into the game, but the Huskies went 4-for-22 the rest of the half and San Diego State trimmed the deficit to four in the final minutes of the first half. But two Cam Spencer free throws and a late 3-pointer pushed the lead back to nine.

An 11-4 UConn run coming out of the break essentially put the game out of reach, with UConn limiting LeDee on the interior and getting clean looks around the rim at the other end.

“He made three perimeter shots against Donovan out in space and then two broken-play buckets. Obviously he had 15 at the half,” Hurley said. “To hold an All-American-caliber player like Jaedon to three points in the second half, I think we just — Donovan made it hard on him. Samson [Johnson] made it hard on him. Guys who were helping off the right people on the perimeter, just showed them a lot more bodies and played much better one-on-one defense. We’re a top-10 defensive team as well. So again, that’s the best way to keep yourself from being vulnerable in this tournament is by guarding at a high level.”

Clingan and Alex Karaban didn’t have their best games, but stalwarts Spencer (18 points) and Tristen Newton (17 points) provided their usual production and the Huskies got a big boost from freshman Stephon Castle, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and guard Hassan Diarra, who came off the bench to score 10 points and make four assists.

“I just saw that I kind of missed out on a couple of opportunities to kind of grab some offensive rebounds, kind of make some more plays for my teammates,” Castle said. “The second half I just tried to make up for those and just try to do whatever I can to win my matchup and help my teammates.”

“The balance, basically, to have the four guys in double figures, two more guys with eight, we have a lot of answers,” Hurley added.

UConn will play the winner of No. 2 Iowa State versus No. 3 Illinois in Saturday’s regional final, looking to go to its second consecutive Final Four.

The Huskies have already made it further than any reigning national champion since Florida in 2007.

“This is just where our program is at right now,” Hurley said. “This is where our program is going to be.”