ALBANY – Jordan Hawkins could hear the rumblings from the frustrated UConn portion of the crowd. After a rough 2-for-11 shooting performance in the Big East Tournament semifinals, he followed it up with a 0-for-6 showing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against upset-hungry Iona.
Adama Sanogo could feel the memories of NCAA Tournaments past weighing on him. After scoring a combined 14 points in back-to-back first rounds losses, he had only six points at the half and was minus-eight on the court as the 13th seeded Gaels held a two-point lead.
Dan Hurley called the idea of a third-straight first round loss an “unfathomable feeling.”
It took only four minutes, though, for Hawkins to erase his shooting slump, Sanogo to establish his dominance and the Huskies to make a statement.
Hawkins converted on a four-point play on UConn’s first possession of the second half and the fourth-seeded Huskies rolled from there, destroying Rick Pitino and Iona, 87-63, at MVP Arena. UConn will face No. 5 St. Mary’s on Sunday in the second round.
For Hawkins, he knew his shot would come around. The hard part was being patient.
“Once you see that ball go in, it’s a sigh of relief,” said Hawkins, who scored all 13 of his points in the second, including three three-pointers. “It really got me going.”
Sanogo was an unstoppable force over the final 20 minutes, scoring 22 of his 28 points, to go along with 13 rebounds. The Gaels simply had no chance against the 6-foot-9 center. Despite his slower start, he wasn’t concerned.
“I wasn’t really (worried),” Sanogo said. “I felt things would be fine for me. I’ve been here before, so I know how to respond.”
“We grabbed him at halftime because he was pressing in the first half,” noted Hurley. “He was hesitant. I think the weight of getting us out of the first round was a little bit too much in the first half. (We said) ‘Adama, don’t hesitate. Just go up and finish. There’s no one who could deal with you down there.’ “
For the Huskies (26-8) to stay in this event for a while, they will need more consistency from Hawkins and Sanogo. The first half could not have gone better for Iona, which shot 6-of-11 from three, led by Berrick JeanLouis’ 11 points.
It could’ve been worse for the Huskies, but their bench, as they did in the Big East Tournament, came up big, with Naheim Alleyne hitting two threes and Bristol’s Donovan Clingan dominating the paint. Clingan had eight points and eight rebounds and was a team-best plus-six, which helped limit Iona’s momentum.
“Donovan was important because Adama was not playing well,” Hurley said of Clingan, whose final stat line included 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in nearly 14 minutes. “Adama was fumbling the ball and struggling in a lot of ways. Donovan’s first half minutes were huge. Our bench was fantastic.”
“They physically dominated us from the five spot,” Pitino said.
Andre Jackson also had a solid game for UConn, helping limit any disruptions caused by Iona’s full court press, a Pitino staple. He finished with 10 points, a game-high seven assists and five rebounds.
The second half turned into a celebration for the Huskies as they shot 60 percent from the field, 44 percent from three and 91 percent at the line. Hurley on multiple occasions screamed to the crowd while raising his arms in the air, a regular move of his during home games. Order was restored.
“It was definitely up there,” Sanogo said when asked if the second half was the best stretch of play from UConn this season. “(Iona) was showing a lot of confidence and we were going back and forth. The second half was one of our best moments, for sure.”
The Huskies have a day to breathe and prep for St. Mary’s, which took care of business against VCU. These Gaels are bigger on the frontline than the Iona Gaels, plus have significant more depth. It will not be easy.
“This next game against St. Mary’s is going to be a lot different,” Jackson said. “They are a slower paced team and more methodical, the complete opposite style of Iona. There will definitely be an adjustment.”
“When you have a four seed and a five seed, there is very little separation between the two teams,” added Hurley, who notched his 250th career win on Friday. “We know surviving Sunday is going to be an absolute war and a dogfight.”
Each tournament game has its own story due to quick turnarounds against mostly unfamiliar opponents. Momentum can be difficult to carry over from game-to-game for those reasons. But, if the second half on Friday was any indication, the Huskies could have a long run ahead.
However, it starts, and could end, with Hawkins and Sanogo’s ability to shine consistently.