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UConn has all the answers against San Diego State in Sweet 16 rout


UConn has all the answers against San Diego State in Sweet 16 rout

BOSTON — The game was barely underway, Jaedon LeDee popping in a nice little jumper to give San Diego State a 2-0 lead over Connecticut just as everyone was settling into their seats at TD Garden Thursday night. But what happened next was one of those previews-of-coming attractions kind of plays that, looking back on it, told us exactly where this Sweet 16 matchup was headed.

For there went Connecticut’s big fella, Donovan Clingan, rumbling and roaring and muscling his way to the basket, around Aztecs, through Aztecs, until putting the ball in the net to tie the game. Just one basket, that’s all. Just 46 seconds into the game. And yet it said so much.

See, it wasn’t Clingan’s scoring touch that powered Connecticut to its easy 82-52 victory over San Diego State in the East Regional semifinal, sending the defending national champions to an Elite Eight showdown on Saturday against Illinois. It was that his opening basket served as a reminder that while this is a team with stupendous talent — more about that in a moment — it’s also a team with thump. In the first half alone, when the Aztecs were keeping it close thanks to 15 points from LeDee, UConn collected 12 offensive rebounds to just five by San Diego State. By the end of the night, that big advantage in offensive rebounding had swelled to 21-12, resulting in 12 second-chance points for the Huskies.

The message here, besides all that UConn talent — and, yes, again, we’ll get to that in a moment — is that you can’t beat the Huskies if you can’t take the ball away from them.

The Huskies have done away with the old-fashioned practice of merely winning games. They’ve been going the wrecking-ball route lately, winning games by 39 (over Stetson), 17 (Northwestern) and San Diego State (30).

What, you ask, is going on here? Easy: “We suck at winning close games,” UConn coach Dan Hurley explained. “So you have to go with the alternative.”

Ahh, there we are. The Huskies are good and they want you to know they’re good. No, the Huskies are great and they want you to know they’re great. It’s practically stamped on their foreheads. Not so much as a brag, even though by definition that’s what it is, but as an exercise in neatly rolling out facts and figures to make a point.

Looking at how the game unfolded, Hurley noted that Clingan “got it going” and that four players scored in double digits: Hassan Diarra (10), Stephon Castle (16), Tristen Newton (17) and Cam Spencer, The Three-point Dispenser (18). He noted that Alex Karaban, who grew up in the Boston area, came into the Garden and scored all eight of his points in the first five minutes of the game.

“The balance basically to have the four guys in double figures, two more guys with eight,” Hurley started to say, after which he paused for just a moment before adding: “We have a lot of answers.”

Bingo. Oh, the Huskies surely have chemistry, teamwork, hustle, tenacity, commitment, brotherly love … the list just goes on and on … but Hurley can throw it all into the one pot and turn it into this: answers. They have answers. And they have answers because, top to bottom, they’re the best college basketball program in America. And from Hurley’s comment the other day about his team being “bulletproof” to this latest bit about his team having “answers,” it’s clear this is all by design.

Heck, even UConn’s path to the Final Four — opening round games at Barclays Center to this visit to TD Garden — is something Hurley wants you to know was earned, not delivered from a smoke-filled room by accommodating NCAA folks who thought it’d be nice if Huskies fans could make pleasant drives to Brooklyn and Boston.

Hurley made this point during his media session on Wednesday. He made it again Thursday night following the cakewalk over San Diego State. “We had to win a s— ton of games to get that,” Hurley said, as though there’s some raging national debate over the Huskies getting those games in Brooklyn and Boston.

One person who is especially enjoying the Boston part of things is Karaban, who grew up in nearby Southborough, some 30 miles west of Boston. But he made it a point that there isn’t an ounce of stress in any of this — not from trying to win a second straight national championship, not from playing in a building that’s practicality in his backyard.

“No, it’s never stressful,” he said.

And where does that come from?

“It’s really the coaching,” Karaban said. He went on to point out that the Huskies were on “the biggest stage last year,” and that this year’s team “has veterans who continue to lead,” but his knee-jerk reaction was to point to Hurley.

If it’s swagger, it’s swagger without rancor. Hurley, in fact, opened his postgame media session Thursday by laying verbal rose petals at San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher and his program. And Karaban said, “We know the culture of San Diego State, how together they were.”

Swagger, it could be said, requires that you dance on the other team’s logo. That’s not what’s happening here. The Huskies merely want you to understand what they’re all about. They’re showing it, and, yes, absolutely, they’re saying it.

(Photo of Donovan Clingan blocking a shot by San Diego State’s Lamont Butler: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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