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NCAA tournament takeaways: No. 4 UConn crushes Iona, advances to second round

Can the Huskies make it to the second weekend?

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

No. 4 UConn men’s basketball has its first NCAA Tournament win since 2016- and the first in the Dan Hurley era- under its belt as the Huskies rode an impressive second half to a dominant 87-63 victory over No. 13 Iona in the first round. For its efforts, UConn will face off against 5-seed St. Mary’s on Sunday night for a berth in the Sweet 16.

Here’s what we took away from the St. Patrick’s Day victory.

Donovan Clingan: impact player

Shawn McGrath: Freshman Donovan Clingan played nine minutes in the first half. In that span, he grabbed eight points, eight rebounds and a block, with one solid assist and several altered shots. Usually, he’s the biggest person on the floor by a pretty solid margin and can use that to his advantage. However, Osborn Shema stands at 7 feet on the other side and Iona players have to deal with him every day in practice.

Despite that, he was a force on both ends and did a great job spelling Adama Sanogo, which gave him the energy to play a dominant second half. It’s an embarrassment of riches to have a player like Clingan come off the bench. He’s able to use his size to his advantage and does a great job securing rebounds and altering shots on the defensive end, while also possessing the ability to pass out of the post, run the floor and execute on the pick-and-roll. He had a great game on Friday and will be a key to victory on Sunday against Saint Mary’s.

This team is mentally tough

McGrath: The last two appearances in the NCAA Tournament for UConn ended in brutal ways. The Huskies were plus-11 on the boards against Maryland in 2021, won the turnover battle, took 22 more shots than the Terrapins and still lost by nine. In 2022, UConn endured an 11-17 3-point performance from New Mexico State, along with a perfect 13-13 on free throws, losing by seven.

The third time did not look to be the charm in the Dan Hurley era early on. Andre Jackson got the scoring started with a 3-pointer, but Iona was 3-3 from 3-point range early and hit seven of its first 10 shots. UConn had more than a point per possession and were performing at a sustainable level, but the Gaels were shooting out of their minds.

It couldn’t have been easy to be staring yet another outlier game in the face, but the Huskies held on in the first half and didn’t let Iona get too far ahead, as the Gaels were only able to extend the lead to as much as four. Then in the second half, the team really came alive and performed as well as we’ve seen from them this season. If UConn plays like that against Saint Mary’s and any future opponents, this team can go to the second weekend and beyond.

Dan Madigan: There’s something to be said about this team coming, taking care of business, and putting the game away early in the second half. Look at all of the other 4/13 matchups around the bracket — one team (Virginia) lost, and the other two (Indiana and Tennessee) won by an average of seven points. It certainly means something that this team blew out an Iona team with a Hall of Fame coach and got Dan Hurley his first tournament win at UConn in the process. This team is playing its best basketball right now, and you really can’t ask for more than that come tournament time.

Second half adjustments were key

McGrath: Though UConn played well in the first half and trailed a team that shot 6-11 from beyond the arc by two headed into the locker room, the intensity was very clearly ratcheted up and it paid off, as the Huskies blew the doors off the Gaels in the final 20 minutes.

Iona went from 16-33 from the field in the first half to just 6-24 in the second half, including merely 1-5 from beyond the arc. While a regression to the mean surely helped, it was a byproduct of UConn’s increased pressure and ability to play more aggressive defense that set off a team that hadn’t played against this kind of opponent all year.

On offense, Jordan Hawkins’ cold streak from the Big East Tournament semifinal continued through the first half, as the sophomore was 0-6 from the field, including 0-3 from downtown. However, he hit a 3-pointer on the first possession of the second half, got fouled, knocked down the free throw and rode the momentum to 13 second-half points. Sanogo was also solid with six points and three rebounds in 11 minutes in the first half, but stepped it up in a big way, with 22 points and 10 boards in just 14 minutes, doing so on just 12 shots.

Bench Mob

Patrick Martin: 26 points from UConn’s bench is the most since the St John’s win. Everyone did their part; Joey Calcaterra and Nahiem Alleyne stretched the floor, Hassan Diarra provided a change of pace, and Clingan, well, see above from the lads. Meanwhile, Saint Mary’s has one player that plays more than 10 minutes on the bench. In games where Hawkins is struggling to find a rhythm, the ability to bring in instant offense off the bench is huge. The bench may put up a goose egg versus the Gaels, but don’t bet on Hawkins to do so for long.