UConn showcases its dominance in BE Tourney beatdown of Xavier

NEW YORK – If you were to capture what the last calendar year has been like for UConn, dating back to the 2023 NCAA Tournament title and a 29-3 destruction of its competition this campaign, the second half of Thursday’s Big East Tournament quarterfinal against Xavier is the perfect snapshot.

After falling behind 10-0 and crawling to a one-point halftime edge, the Huskies put on a clinic for the ages over the final 20 minutes at Madison Square Garden. Incredibly, they made 22 of their 28 shots, good for 79 percent, and left Xavier in the dust, prevailing 87-60 on their way to the semifinals where St. John’s awaits.

UConn’s had several moments this season that gave you reason to believe it reached its peak. Once again, it rose above. The team was even impressed with their stats on Thursday, but hardly surprised.

“To shoot 79 percent in a half is wild,” said Donovan Clingan, who scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half, including three dunks. “It just shows all the work that everyone on this team puts in. We’re trying to find that man open the offensive end. We’re always saying, ‘swing it to the next guy, swing it to the next guy,’ and find the open shooter. Our shooters are stepping into those shots with confidence and that’s what we need them to do in order to win these games. It’s important we keep playing as a team and unselfishly.”

“It’s a testament to this group” added UConn coach Dan Hurley, whose team recorded 29 assists on 35 makes. “There are not many teams in the country with this level of talent. I mean, we’re starting five guys that are NBA players and they’re willing for it to be other people’s night on a given night. (We’ve) got a team filled with guys that bought into the culture and are all about winning.”

Clingan was a good example of the shift in momentum after halftime. After a quiet first half, the Huskies’ center ran the floor, clogged the lane defensively, and frustrated the Musketeers to no end.

“When Donovan turns it up, he impacts the game like few players in the country,” noted Hurley.

Xavier, 76-72 winners over Butler a day earlier, came out in rhythm, jumping out to an immediate double-digit lead before the Huskies responded with a 13-0 run. UConn, paced by Samson Johnson (12 points), Cam Spencer (12 points, 8 assists) and Tristen Newton (13 points, seven rebounds, five assists), hung tight for the remainder of the half before coming out of the locker room and landing its knockout punch.

The Huskies have experience dealing with adversity and didn’t need a loud “get your act together” speech from their coaches at halftime. They knew what was lacking and how to fix it.

“We knew we weren’t playing to our standard or our identity,” Clingan said. “We weren’t playing with any fire or intensity. Coming out in the second half we came out with that fire. We played as a team and good things happened.”

Alex Karaban (12 points) and Stephon Castle (10) rounded out the scoring as the Huskies took turn in waves dominating the second half. One second, the Musketeers (16-17) were down only a point. The next, it felt, their season was over. UConn is not only a champion, but a heavyweight one.

“You just get blinded by trying to make a play for the next person, you don’t even realize it until you see (the numbers) afterwards,” Castle said. “It felt great to play out there for my guys and have fun and know that everyone is playing for each other.”

“One of the biggest strengths of our team is that anybody can spark us at any moment,” Spencer said. “The unselfishness of the group knows it can be anybody’s night, or it could be everybody’s night like tonight. How well we share the ball just gives us a lot of confidence.”

UConn’s defense also put to rest any upset bid, swarming Xavier into 23 misses of its 32 second half attempts. Quincy Olivari and Desmond Claude combined for 30 points but shot only 11-of-31.

“(Our second half) was unbelievable, but as good as we were offensively, I thought it was really our defense that sparked everything,” Karaban said. “We got out in transition, we opened up the defense, and we passed up some good shots for great shots.”

The Huskies will meet up with Rick Pitino and friends Friday evening. The crowd will be split, feisty and on edge. UConn, 2-0 against St. John’s in the regular season, has lost in the semifinals to Villanova and Marquette, respectively, in the last two seasons, with both defeats coming down to the final seconds. Yes, it has a national championship. The Huskies want more, though.

“I know this program has been stuck at the final four of the Big East Tournament and that we really want to break that hump,” Karaban said. “Winning the Big East Tournament has always been a huge goal of ours and we’ve been eyeing it since the beginning of the year.”

It wouldn’t be smart to bet against them accomplishing that goal. The Huskies have met every challenge with force, destroying nearly everything in their path, winning 15 games by 20 or more points. Xavier learned that when it got blasted by 43 points in Hartford on Jan. 28, and got a nice reminder in the NYC spotlight Thursday.

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