UConn keeps rolling in March, trounces Gonzaga

LAS VEGAS — Dan Hurley was the last one to climb the ladder.

There was only one piece of the net remaining to be cut. But after the UConn coach reached for the scissors, he paused and put them back in the holder. Hurley instead ripped the twine from the hoop, raised it as a trophy and grabbed the rim with both hands, shaking it in equal parts anger and ecstasy.

It was the perfect metaphor for his No. 4 seed Huskies’ rampage through the West Region, which was completed with Saturday night’s 82-54 demolition of No. 3 Gonzaga and sends UConn to its sixth Final Four next week against the winner of Sunday’s Miami-Texas Midwest Region final.

“When you play us for the first time, we’re very unique with what we have with Adama [Sanogo] and these two wings [Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson, Jr.], and then you’re looking at [Donovan] Clingan coming in at 7-2 and the shooting off the bench,” Hurley said. “We’re an elite defensive team. We’re a top-five offensive team, and we generally beat the other team on the glass.

“And sometimes, when people are seeing us for the first time, it’s overwhelming.”

It was the first time Gonzaga was facing Connecticut since 2015.

Physically tough? Check.

Mentally sound?

Well, if the distraction of a hotel switch upon arrival and the annoyance of a bus break-in during a practice couldn’t rattle the Huskies on their first-ever Vegas vacation — let alone three players, including star forward Sanogo, fasting during the day to observe Ramadan — how would a Gonzaga team having an off night upend UConn?

It couldn’t.

Consider: UConn’s 28-point victory was the largest in an Elite Eight game since Cincinnati beat Memphis by 31 points in 1992. The Huskies became the 10th team to win each of its first four NCAA tournament games by at least 15 points, joining the 2004 Huskies, who won the title. And UConn is the fifth team since 2000 to have a +90-point differential through its first four tournament games, along with 2021 Gonzaga (+96), 2009 UConn (+101), 2009 North Carolina (+90) and 2008 North Carolina (+101).

It was after one of his six 3-pointers when Hawkins, running back downcourt, tugged at his jersey, showing the crowd the lettering in the front.

“My emotions took all of me,” said Hawkins, who was named the region’s MVP after scoring a game-high 20 points. “And I just had to flex ‘UCONN.’ UConn’s back.”

Jackson, who had a complete game with eight points, nine rebounds and 10 assists, chimed in: “But we never left.”

In fact, the Huskies left their paw prints all over the regional, the first NCAA tournament games ever played in Las Vegas. And they ran over Gonzaga in ending the college career of All-American forward Drew Timme, who reiterated this week he would enter the NBA draft rather than come back for a fifth year afforded by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Timme was saddled with foul trouble, picking up his third and fourth fouls within the first 2:21 of the second half. Gonzaga was down 10 points at the time. The fourth foul seemed especially iffy, with an inadvertent elbow toward Jackson’s head, but Timme went to the bench.

UConn would stretch the lead to as much as 33 points, with 3:48 to play.

“Look, we can say, ‘What if?’ Right?” said Timme, who scored 12 points on just 5-of-14 shooting from the field along with 10 rebounds in 32 minutes.

“What if they didn’t call a foul? But the bottom line is they were the better team tonight. They made more shots. They got the 50-50 balls. Regardless of whether we want to say What-ifs, the refs didn’t control that game. They were the better team tonight.”

Timme, whom Hurley called “one of the best big guys to ever play college basketball,” finished his career as the 10th-leading scorer in NCAA tournament history, with 301 points, seven away from fifth place.

But as Timme and Gonzaga head home, UConn heads to Houston.

“I could only screw it up when you’re sitting next to three NBA players,” Hurley, in his fifth year at UConn, said as he nodded to his right at Jackson, Sanogo and Hawkins. “We should be going to the Final Four.”

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