Clingan, Huskies cruise to first round NCAA tourney win


BROOKLYN – When you see Donovan Clingan and the way he carries himself, you would think he’s a fifth-year graduate senior, a player with immense experience, confidence, and comfortability in his role.

UConn’s center, as a reminder, is only a sophomore. You can easily argue, though, he’s the Huskies’ biggest leader.

Case in point: UConn’s first round NCAA Tournament battle against No. 16 Stetson. Higher seeds have a history of getting tight, nervous, and wound up in this event.

Clingan could not have been more relaxed and composed. His teammates, especially those without tournament experience, followed his lead and voice, and promptly put to rest any hopes of a Cinderella story at their expense.

The Huskies, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, wasted no time showing why they earned that distinction, rolling over Stetson, 91-52, at the Barclays Center. Step 1 in their national title defense was a success.

Now, UConn will face No. 9 Northwestern back in Brooklyn on Sunday. The Wildcats defeated Florida Atlantic in an ugly, yet scrappy overtime affair, 77-65.

“I told them that we already play on the biggest stage and play in front of the most people you could play in front of at the college level,” Clingan said. “You just have to attack it like any other game, have a positive mindset to go out there any dominate the opponent. I feel like the young guys, and everyone, did that tonight.”

This contest went as expected with UConn jumping out to a 20-point lead just 11 minutes in at 26-6. At the half, it was 52-19 with the Huskies shooting an insane 68 percent, which was very reminiscent of their second half in the Xavier game at the Big East Tournament last week. Stetson had no chance against the Huskies’ swarming defense, as it struggled to get shots off, let alone make them.

The Hatters also had little hope against the size of the Huskies with Clingan scoring at will in the paint, throwing precise passes from the top of the key and shutting down drives to the basket defensively. Clingan finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while shooting 9-of-11 from the field.

“He was awesome today,” noted UConn coach Dan Hurley. “He’s a game-changer, from what he creates on offense, how he spooks people at the rim, the rebounding presence, the fire and the life that he shows up with every day. Obviously, the strength of this team is the versatility of the five starters, and the six through eight on the bench has given us big-time stuff.

“But Donovan, he’s the centerpiece.”

Cam Spencer had plenty of space on the perimeter, registering 15 points, while Stephon Castle, in his tournament debut, netted 14 points.

Tristen Newton recorded 13 points and eight assists, including a step-back three from the mid-court logo. He was also a ridiculous plus-39 in 28:21 of playing time. Outside of a sloppy few minutes to start the second half, the Huskies did what they wanted when they wanted.

“Obviously, love the start,” Hurley said. “It’s exactly how you want to start a game like this. You know the history of these No. 1s or high seeds (of getting upset) and we just took away all hope in that game from them early on with the defense, with the offense, with the relentlessness. So, I thought this was a pretty good first performance.”

“There’s a reason they won the national championship, because after the first five, there was another five, and they wear you down with length,” added Stetson coach Donnie Jones, whose team was led by Stephan Swenson’s 20 points. “They have got a lot of different weapons.”

Northwestern, obviously, will be a tougher test. The Wildcats finished tied for third in the Big Ten, including a win over one of the other No. 1 seeds in Purdue.

“Boo Buie (22 points against Florida Atlantic) is one of the best guards in the country,” Hurley said. “They run some of the best offense sets that you’ll see in terms of their half-court stuff. We haven’t had much time to do a deep dive on them. Now, we get back to the hotel and we’ll absorb two or three games. We’ll get up tomorrow and do some more prep. Luke (Murray) has been working on them for a couple of days, so we’re obviously ready to go.”

“I want to enjoy this game before I start talking about that juggernaut,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said after his win.

Hurley also stressed the importance of keeping their foot on the pedal. Going back to last year’s dominant tournament run and a 32-3 campaign this season with Big East regular season and tournament titles, there’s no reason to think they won’t. That’s what juggernauts do.

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