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Takeaways: UConn men’s basketball heads to Sweet 16

The Huskies again proved its strength in the second half against a foul- and injury-ridden Saint Mary’s squad.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

No. 4 UConn men’s basketball is onto its 19th Sweet Sixteen in program history, as the Huskies took down 5-seed Saint Mary’s by a score of 70-55 in Albany, New York on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Dan Hurley’s team is back to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since UConn’s national title run in 2014. Here’s what we took away from UConn’s second NCAA Tournament game.

Adama Sanogo is the key cog

Shawn McGrath: It’s not anything new, but Adama Sanogo is one of the biggest reasons this team is where it is. Jordan Hawkins and Alex Karaban, UConn’s best outside shooters, each went scoreless in the first half, but Sanogo was there to contribute 10 points and six boards. He was doing it all offensively, with a few different moves in the post and also putting the ball on the floor and driving to the basket for a lay-in. On defense, he was hassling a thin Saint Mary’s front line and preventing offensive rebounds.

He didn’t slow down after the break, either, with 14 more points and a pair of rebounds to finish just shy of a second consecutive double-double. An already thin Gaels team plagued with injuries and foul trouble couldn’t contain Sanogo and that, combined with a suddenly scorching hot Hawkins, put Saint Mary’s away.

Ryan Goodman: Sanogo has just been ridiculous over the first two games in this tournament. 52 points. 21 rebounds. 24-33 from the field. What I’ve liked most about his performance and the general gameplan is that Hurley went directly to him very early on and didn’t stop. It was the perfect counter to Saint Mary’s playing at their molasses pace. UConn’s half court offense started and ended with the All-American honorable mention and he looks completely unstoppable right now.

He’s not just simply overpowering his defenders either. Sanogo has been going deep in his bag, pulling out his entire arsenal of post moves and also showing a nasty perimeter pump-fake that has fooled me a couple times. His 35% outside shot has to be respected and he’s taking advantage.

I’m definitely a little bit worried about the length and athleticism that Arkansas is going to throw at UConn, but Sanogo will definitely have the advantage inside yet again because the Razorbacks strength is in the backcourt with Nick Smith, Devo Davis, and Ricky Council. UConn hasn’t faced a team all year that has that level of athleticism at their disposal, with the exception of maybe Alabama, so this is going to be a new type of challenge in the Sweet 16.

“I think going into the game, I was like thinking for us to win I have to be at my best,” Sanogo said. “That’s why like today I was ready to like do something positive, if it was scoring or something else. But for us to win, I had to be at my best. That was my mindset, be at my best today.

The second halves have been great - try starting that way

McGrath: In two NCAA Tournament games, UConn’s opponent has come out firing. On Sunday, it was Saint Mary’s starting 7-10 from the field. The Huskies were a more-than-respectable 4-8 in that span, but once Aidan Maheney’s lay-up went in, the Gaels were up 17-9 with 13:15 left in the first half. Hurley’s squad, led by Sanogo and Tristen Newton, battled back to take a one-point lead at the half, with an exceptional second half to put the game away.

“Just taking body blows, it’s what we’ve been able to do through even quality teams through the course of the year. Nonconference, Alabama, Iowa State. In conference, Marquette and Providence. Eventually our depth, elite rebounding, top 20 defense, top 5 offense, with the depth just eventually I think we’re able to break some teams,” Hurley said.

Saint Mary’s had just 25 points in 31 possessions over the final 20 minutes, while Iona had 24 points in 27 possessions on Thursday. In contrast, UConn had 50 second-half points over 31 possessions in the first round and followed it up with 39 points in 31 possessions on Sunday. The Huskies were above 1.00 points per possession in the first half of each contest, but were locked in a close battle because of a strong offensive performance on the other side that faded against a more intense defensive showing. As the Huskies move to the second weekend of the tournament, these (relatively) slow starts could come back to bite them.

Goodman: Hawkins once again struggled to create space in the first half, going to the locker room with zero points. It didn’t discourage him, though and he was on a mission to show off for the NBA scouts in that second 20 minutes. Hawkins immediately came out of the half firing and then proceeded to hit three more that served as early daggers to the Gaels’ Sweet 16 hopes. This was a very close game for about 75% of it, but Hawkins’ switch flip was one of the biggest reasons why UConn was able to pull away and not look back.

Hurley will need both Hawkins and Sanogo to be firing on all cylinders if they are going to get back to the Elite Eight. Arkansas has a ton of length on the wing so running Hawkins wild in order to free him up as much as possible is going to be key.

Clingan once again a difference maker

Patrick Martin: For as transcendent as Sanogo was, bringing in Donovan Clingan off the bench is such a devastating one-two punch. How many other teams in the Sweet 16 can trot out a 7-foot-2 center with his mobility? Whereas Sanogo seals, draws doubles and overall attracts so much space on offense, Clingan’s impact comes more on the defensive end. His stops helped trigger UConn’s first EvanMiya kill-shot of the game early in the second half.

Clingan was plus-15 in only 12 minutes, collecting five rebounds and swatting three shots in the span. Beyond the box score, as we’ve discussed all year, it was his rim presence that deterred Logan Morrison and Aidan Mahaney inside, two Gaels guards that were getting solid shots up in the paint in the first half.

Because Sanogo was so dominant, Clingan was only needed as a change-of-pace today. But for every second he’s out there, he offers Husky fans a glimpse of what he can do when unburdened by the backup role. The upcoming track meet vs. Arkansas — a team that attacks the rim with reckless abandon — might mean extended minutes for his rim-running, shot-blocking abilities.