Castle helps propel Huskies into the Elite Eight

BOSTON – Stephon Castle notched the highlight of the night, catching a perfect alley-oop pass from Tristen Newton from nearly halfcourt and slamming it in, firing up the UConn-heavy crowd at the TD Garden in the process.

While this may be the play most remembered from No. 1 UConn’s 82-52 blowout over fifth-seeded San Diego State in the Sweet Sixteen, it was hustle plays from the freshman that made the difference.

From diving on the floor after loose balls to tipping rebounds to his teammates to locking down his defensive assignment, Castle, who recorded his first career double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds, was everywhere. His energy was contagious as UConn dominated the Aztecs on the boards, 50-29, with 21 of them offensive rebounds.

As a result, the Huskies will face Illinois Saturday night with a berth to their second consecutive Final Four on the line.

With special thanks to efforts like Castle’s on Friday. Even though he was five-star recruit out of high school, Castle doesn’t carry himself on the court as a me-first player. Instead, he’s shown he’s willing to do anything to win. And that hasn’t been an adjustment for him.

“I am very coachable and do whatever I have to do on the floor and not have any complaints about it,” Castle said. “That’s just what my character has been my whole life. It’s been working out for me and I will keep sticking to that.”

Castle’s season got off to a rough start, with him missing six early games due to a knee injury. Projected to be a first round NBA draft pick prior to the year, his stats (10.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game) come across a little underwhelming and, from the outside looking in, may give the impression that his stock would be falling. Hardly. Castle has been a lockdown defender and has displayed athleticism that will easily translate to the NBA’s style of play. Throw in his tenacious drive and you have someone who is now in the lottery range in the latest projections.

“He is a pleaser, and he is a humble kid, and he’s got great parents,” noted UConn coach Dan Hurley. “Then I think what makes it easier for Steph is, again, he’s insulated with a great group of older players and a great mix on the roster. His relationship with Tristen has helped him a great deal. Donovan (Clingan), Alex Karaban, Cam Spencer. He’s got veteran players that aren’t threatened by him in these mock drafts and all of his abilities and talent. We don’t have that petty s— in our program. We just have a great group of people that support each other. The players have a really special bond.”

The bond Hurley spoke of was on display during the alley-oop. On the play, which occurred in the first half, Newton dribbled from the backcourt to about two steps over the halfcourt line. He then threw the lob and Castle caught it with both hands and dunked with authority. The building, swarmed with UConn fans dressed in white, erupted.

“I feel like me and Tristen have a lot of chemistry (on that type of play),” Castle said. “That’s not the first one he’s thrown to me from halfcourt this year. That’s crazy to say, but it’s reality. He just threw one to me yesterday in practice. It’s something that’s second nature to him, he’s such a great passer. He has the confidence in me to go get it.”

The Huskies (34-3) did not have a great first half, especially during the final 10 minutes, but still led 40-31 at the break. Any hopes of San Diego State avenging its loss to UConn in last season’s title game quickly were squashed, however. UConn, led by six points from Castle, went on an 11-4 run to start the second and, with the way the Huskies were defending, overcoming a 16-point lead looked like an impossible task. It was.

“They’re connected. They’re dangerous,” said San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher, whose team was led by Jaedon LeDee’s 18 points and eight rebounds. “We tried to hang in there. We didn’t play our best game, but that’s a credit to them. We knew we had to make some shots, and we didn’t make enough shots. They have an ability, when they get ahead with the offense they run, to really extend every possession and punish you, and that’s what they did.”

Spencer led the Huskies with 18 points and Newton had another solid all-around game, finishing with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Hassan Diarra provided a spark off the bench with 10 points and four assists in 19 minutes.

UConn, meanwhile, continues to pile up milestones. It tied the program’s all-time wins total in a season with 34, first accomplished in its 1998-99 championship season. It tied the all-time NCAA Tournament with nine straight double-digit wins dating back to last season. And, finally, the Huskies’ margin of victory Friday was the highest by a team in the Sweet Sixteen since Kansas prevailed over Purdue by 32 in 2017.

Another day, another set of records challenged.

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

In a more serious tone, he added: “I think the group, we have killer instincts. We play every possession with great desperation. We have NBA-level players that are incredibly well-prepared by Luke Murray and Kimani Young, two of the best coaches in the country, assistant head coaches, two of the best that do it.

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

Whether it’s been Clingan dominating in the first two rounds, Newton always in double-double range, Spencer filling up the scoring column or Castle doing a little bit of everything, Hurley’s statement rings true.

The Huskies are halfway through the tournament, halfway to back-to-back championships. The style and the leader may change each game, but the result of dominance continues with no end in sight.

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