UConn pulls away, wins sixth NCAA championship

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — There comes a point in every dominant UConn win in the NCAA tournament when Dan Hurley finally relaxes. Two straight years, 12 straight games. It’s become an inevitability.

In the first four games of this year’s tournament, it came early in the second half. Against Alabama, it didn’t come until Tristen Newton’s 3 with 1:04 left to put the game out of reach. Hurley looked at the UConn crowd and put up three fingers.

And against Purdue in Monday night’s national championship game, it came after Newton was fouled by Zach Edey on a jump shot with 3:50 remaining. The rebound came to Hurley, who bounced it three times with excitement — and maybe even a hint of a smile.

He could finally relax: UConn’s spot in history was cemented.

The Huskies defeated Purdue 75-60, winning their second straight national championship and becoming the first team to go back-to-back since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

And after one of the most dominant NCAA tourney runs in history last year, when UConn beat its six opponents by 20.0 points per game, it was even more unbeatable this year. After Monday’s win, the Huskies’ average scoring margin in their six wins was 23.3 points.

Once again, all six wins came by double digits — making that 12 straight NCAA tournament wins by at least 10 points dating back to last season.

UConn’s defensive game plan was clear from the outset: Defend Edey with Donovan Clingan, let him go one-on-one and make sure nobody else on Purdue gets going. The numbers backed up that strategy. In Purdue’s wins this season, Edey averaged 24.9 points. In Purdue’s losses, Edey averaged 25.0 points.

Simply put, Edey was going to get his production regardless.

But if the Boilermakers’ complementary pieces failed to provide the reigning Wooden Award winner with any help, UConn would win its second straight title.

As a result, the much-anticipated battle between Edey and Clingan wasn’t much of a battle in the early minutes of the game. Edey short-armed his first shot over Clingan, hitting the front rim. For the next 11 minutes, though, he did whatever he wanted against UConn’s projected top-five NBA draft pick. He scored over Clingan, absorbed contact to finish through Clingan and even caught a lob and dunked against Clingan.

Purdue was getting Edey the ball in good position and he was scoring at will.

“You may coach or play your whole career and never coach or play against somebody of his stature,” Hurley said on Sunday. “Truly a giant player.”

After he scored his 13th and 14th points of the game with 8:07 left in the first half to give Purdue a two-point lead, he looked over at the UConn bench and then exchanged a few words with Hurley as the two teams jogged back to their respective huddles at the under-eight media timeout.

Hurley was working the officials, as he typically does, yelling “He never fouls!” and “What the f- was that?” after a pair of what he perceived were missed calls on Edey.

Over the final eight minutes of the first half, though, Edey struggled and Purdue struggled. He scored just two points the rest of the opening period, with UConn opening up a seven-point lead after an 11-2 run with 3:29 left.

Braden Smith, who failed to take care of the ball in Saturday’s Final Four win over NC State, scored five straight points to keep Purdue in the game when it looked like UConn was getting separation. Smith had been highly effective in the opening 20 minutes at using ball-screens to get into the lane against UConn’s defense and then either finding Edey for a basket or scoring himself.

Pressuring Smith with freshman Stephon Castle, who shut down Northwestern’s Boo Buie and Illinois’ Terrence Shannon Jr. earlier in the NCAA tournament, was clearly a big part of UConn’s defensive gameplan, with Hurley constantly yelling at Castle to stay on Smith and turn up the heat on him.

“I think when you miss shots, you’re used to making them, you turn the ball over, you’re used to not, I think that combination for Braden (vs. NC State) was really hard for him to take in,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said on Sunday. “I think our team, our staff did a good job of keeping him positive. He’s a big piece of what we do. He runs the show for us.”

UConn’s early success came from its veteran backcourt of Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer. The Huskies had success at utilizing high ball-screens, dribble handoffs and pindowns, which allowed their guards to catch the ball with momentum going to the basket. It forced Edey to drop toward his own basket, giving UConn’s guards room to maneuver for runners and leaners in the lane.

The Huskies were also able to keep Purdue — the nation’s second-best 3-point shooting team — from getting clean looks from the perimeter. The Boilermakers attempted just two 3-pointers in the first half, with Smith’s 3 as the shot clock was winding down the lone make.

They finished the game just 1-for-7 from behind the arc.

“Just the size of guards, to have a 6-5 Tristen Newton, Steph Castle who is 6-6, to be able to put him on a point guard or on a wing scorer, either one of those guys,” Hurley said Sunday of his perimeter group. “It just affects passing windows. I think for guards, whether it’s the ball screen game or post feeding. Obviously, it shrinks the court for the opponent, as well. Allows you to contest the 3-point line at those spots. Even Karaban, who is 6-8, 6-9, he’s got great length at his position, as well.”

A missed runner from Spencer in the final seconds of the first half kept the halftime score at 36-30.

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