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UConn’s big men can carry the Huskies all the way to Houston

Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan will be a nightmare for opponents all throughout March.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Dan Hurley secured his first-ever NCAA tournament win at UConn Friday as the Huskies stomped over Iona 87-63 in the first round at MVP Arena in Albany, New York. After weathering an onslaught of hot shooting from Iona and trailing by two at halftime, UConn stepped on the gas and blew the doors off the Gaels in the final 20 minutes, outscoring them 50-24 in the second half.

While the Huskies had four players in double-figures, the frontcourt of Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan did the most damage, terrorizing a very solid set of big men in Iona’s Nelly Junior Joseph and 7-footer Osborn Shema. The duo each played well defensively and combined for 40 of UConn’s 87 points, completely dominating every aspect of the game, especially in the second half.

“The past four or five days, we’ve been working on finding the post and playing our best post defense. So we were ready for the game today, Clingan said. “We’re just trying to be as dominant as we could be and attack the glass on both ends because we’re both bigger than [Junior Joseph].”

Sanogo posted his 10th 20-point game of the year in the win over the Gaels, scoring 28 points on an efficient 13-17 shooting night. Iona had no answer for him in the paint, where he was able to maneuver around for clean looks at the baskets, or on the boards, where he racked up 13 total rebounds and a game-high six on the offensive end. He was the first player in the 64-team era of the NCAA tournament (since 1985) to post at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes or less.

Clingan, Sanogo’s relief off of the bench, was arguably even better. The freshman was one rebound short of a double-double, but still posted a 12-point, nine-rebound line in only 14 minutes of action. The Bristol, Connecticut native used his size to rip down rebounds and showcased some solid footwork to seal off his defender for some dunks down low. Clingan also made his presence known on the defensive end with two blocks and altering countless others.

Hurley knows that he has the luxury of replacing an honorable mention All-American big with someone who can put Zach Edey-like numbers in limited minutes. While there may be some advantages to pairing the two together, like the Huskies used early in Big East play as they tried to come back from a road deficit in Providence, the ability to always have the best big man on the floor at any given time is one advantage Hurley loves to hold on to.

“Our centers have devastated the other team because obviously you have a dominant player in Sanogo, and then you bring an outstanding 7-footer in,” Hurley said. “When we’re at our best, our centers are giving us 30-plus points and high-double-figure rebounds.”

Including Friday night, Sanogo and Clingan have combined for 30-plus points and 10 or more rebounds in nine games this season. UConn is 9-0 when the duo reach that mark. Prior to the win over the Gaels, the two last reached those numbers in a 90-76 win at DePaul on the last day of January.

The Huskies will need another monster performance from the frontcourt against another set of Gaels as they take on Saint Mary’s Sunday in the second round. They have a talented frontcourt of their own in 6-foot-10 Mitchell Saxen and power forward Kyle Bowen, who help the Gaels own the glass on both ends. Saint Mary’s limits opponents’ offensive rebounds better than just about everyone, ranking second nationally in opponent offensive rebounding percentage at 22 percent. That sets up to be a major challenge for the UConn bigs, who have helped the Huskies claim the title of the country’s best offensive rebounding team.

Few teams in the country have a big man as capable as Sanogo, let alone a backup as competent as Clingan is. With Purdue and Edey, the likely National Player of the Year, now out of the tournament following their upset lost Fairleigh Dickinson, UConn has an advantage in the post that hardly remaining teams can match.

“They’re physical,” Hurley said of Saint Mary’s. “We know that surviving Sunday is going to be an absolute war and a dogfight. But our centers have been really good this year when we’ve been really good.”