UConn’s big men can carry the Huskies all the way to Houston

UConn’s big men can carry the Huskies all the way to Houston

By Dan Madigan on Mar 18, 2023 4:22 pm

Dan Hurley secured his first NCAA Tournament win at UConn on Friday as the Huskies defeated Iona 87-63 in the first round at MVP Arena in Albany, New York. After withstanding a hot shooting attack from Iona and trailing by two in the first half, UConn got on the gas and blew the doors off the Gaels in the final 20 minutes, outscoring them 50-24 going into the second half.

While the Huskies had four players in double figures, the frontcourt of Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan did the most damage, terrorizing a very strong group of big men in Iona’s Nelly Junior Joseph and seven-footer Osborn Shema. The duo played well on defense and combined for 40 of UConn’s 87 points, completely dominating every aspect of the game, especially in the second half.

“The last four or five days, we’ve been working on finding the post and playing our best post defense. So we were ready for the game today, Clingan said. “We’re just trying to be as dominant as we can and attack the glass on both ends because we’re both bigger than [Junior Joseph].”

Sanogo posted his 10th 20-point game of the year in the win over the Gaels, scoring 28 points on an efficient 13-17 shooting night. Iona had no answer for him in the paint, where he was able to maneuver for clean looks at the baskets, or on the boards, where he collected 13 total rebounds and a game-high six on the offensive end. He was the first player in the 64-team NCAA Tournament era (since 1985) to score at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes or less.

Clingan, Sanogo’s relief from the bench, was perhaps even better. The freshman was one jump shy of a double-double, but still posted a 12-point, nine-rebound streak in just 14 minutes of action. The Bristol, Connecticut native used his size to knock down rebounds and showed some solid footwork to close down his defender for a few dunks down low. Clingan also made his presence known on the defensive end with two blocks and countless other turnovers.

Hurley knows he has the luxury of replacing an honorable mention All-American big with someone who can put up Zach Edey-like numbers in limited minutes. While there may be some advantages to pairing the two together, like the Huskies used early in Big East play as they tried to come back from a road deficit at Providence, the ability to always have the best man on the floor in any given time. it’s an edge Hurley likes to keep.

“Our centers have destroyed the other team, because obviously you have a dominant player in Sanogo, and then you bring in a tremendous 7-footer,” Hurley said. “When we’re at our best, our centers are giving us 30-plus points and high-double-digit rebounds.”

Including Friday night, Sanogo and Clingan have combined for 30-plus points and 10 or more rebounds in nine games this season. UConn is 9-0 when the pair reach that mark. Before the win over the Gaels, both last accomplished those numbers in a 90-76 victory at DePaul on the last day of January.

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The Huskies will need another monster performance from the frontcourt against another Gaels group as they take on St. Mary’s Sunday in the second round. They have a talented frontcourt of their own in 6-foot-10 Mitchell Saxen and power forward Kyle Bowen, who help the Gaels dominate the glass on both ends. Saint Mary’s limits opposing offensive rebounds better than almost anyone, ranking second nationally in opposing offensive rebounding percentage at 22 percent. This will be a big challenge for the UConn bigs, who have helped the Huskies earn the title of the best offensive team in the country.

Few teams in the country have a big man as skilled as Sanogo, let alone a backup as competent as Clingan. With Purdue and potential National Player of the Year Edey now out of the tournament after their upset loss to Fairleigh Dickinson, UConn has an advantage in the post that the rest of the team can hardly match.

“They’re physical,” Hurley said of Saint Mary’s. “We know that Sunday’s Survivor is going to be an absolute fight and a fight. But our centers have been really good this year, when we’ve been really good.”

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