UConn cruises to Elite Eight with dominant victory over San Diego State

UConn coach Dan Hurley sat on the TD Garden dias prior to his team’s Sweet 16 game and insisted the Huskies could lose. That an off night could end their season prematurely. That they’re just as vulnerable as any other team in this NCAA Tournament.

No chance. Not yet at least. And after yet another dominant performance on Thursday night, not any time soon.

UConn entered this tournament under the weight of heavy expectations as the biggest threat to become a back-to-back champion since Florida in 2007, and now halfway through that quest, it has done nothing to quell that belief. These Huskies might be even better than last season, and after a 82-52 domination of San Diego State, it’s clear these Huskies are on a mission that may not be stopped.

It wasn’t even close. It never really was going to be. Cam Spencer scored 18 points, Tristen Newton added 17 and Stephon Castle put in 16 as UConn cruised to an Elite Eight appearance. The Huskies will play either Illinois or Iowa State on Saturday night at TD Garden for a spot in the Final Four.

The Huskies are on a purely dominant run in their chase for history. They’re the first defending champ since that Gators team in 2007 to advance to the Elite Eight, and they’re doing so convincingly. Dating back to last year, their average margin of victory over their last nine tournament games is 22.8 points. They’ve won all of those games by double digits.

“We suck at winning close games, so you have to go with the alternative,” Hurley joked. “I think the group, we have killer instincts. We play every possession with great desperation.

“Obviously we’re very comfortable in tournament play. We’re hard to prepare for.”

Even with time to prepare, the Aztecs had no answers. They simply don’t have the firepower to keep up with a team as deep and talented as UConn. Jaedon LeDee was their only hope to have a chance, but he was limited to 18 points, and just three after halftime.

The Huskies lack a flaw, and weapons everywhere that overwhelm their opponents. Spencer scored 16 of his 18 points, then Castle and Newton took over in the second half as they ran away from the Aztecs with relative ease. UConn carved up a Top 10 defense. The Huskies were relentless on the glass, where they pulled down 21 offensive rebounds. SDSU didn’t have a chance, certainly went it went just 5-for-22 from 3-point range.

“Obviously we had our best night, and they didn’t have one of their best nights,” Hurley said. “Obviously didn’t expect a game like this versus those guys.”

There would have been some understandable tightness, if UConn felt some pressure given its status as the No. 1 overall seed, playing in a virtual home environment in Boston. But Hurley said that early 3-pointers from local kid Alex Karaban – which included a deep one from the logo – helped put the Huskies at ease.

UConn had one rough stretch late in the first half, when it missed six of seven shots and saw a double-digit lead shrink to just four. But the Huskies responded well. Spencer hit a 3-pointer just before halftime to put them up nine going into the break, then they simply overpowered the Aztecs.

Castle scored 11 points in the second half, Newton had eight and Hassan Diarra scored 10 off the bench to give another lift. Donovan Clingan, UConn’s 7-foot-2 center, didn’t have a huge impact with just eight points and eight boards, but it didn’t matter. The Huskies have so many wins.

That includes the defensive end, where they held the Aztecs to just 21 points in the second half and never let them sniff a comeback. LeDee couldn’t get it going. UConn just kept pouring it on – on both ends.

“We’re a top-10 defensive team as well,” Hurley said. “That’s the best way to keep yourself from being vulnerable in this tournament is by guarding at a high level.”

This isn’t the same UConn group as last season. Several players – Newton, Clingan and Karaban – are back – but the Huskies also lost Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins to the NBA and had to reload with guys like Spencer and Castle. The pieces have not only fit perfectly, but UConn is continuing to wreck teams. The Huskies are hungry to make history, wanting their new teammates to experience the glory they experienced.

UConn was not necessarily expected to get to this stage, let alone make it look this easy. The road for defending champions is made harder with a target on their back, but these Huskies have taken those shots and just shrugged them off.

“The way the defending champs have fared in recent history, it’s kind of been against the odds in terms of the season we’re having following up the national championship with an even better season, winning the Big East regular season by multiple games and setting a program record now for wins on the season and winning the Big East Tournament and now getting to an Elite Eight,” Hurley said. “This team has defied what past champions have done and taken this program to a completely different level.”

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