The UConn Huskies entered the 2023 NCAA Tournament as the No. 4 seed in the West Region but, for analytically inclined observers, the Huskies didn’t seem like a No. 4 seed. Dan Hurley’s team ranked near the top of the country by predictive metrics and, with top seeds falling all around them, the Huskies dominated the competition in Las Vegas before throttling Miami in Saturday’s national semifinal. Only one test stood between UConn and a national title on Monday and, despite a late surge from the San Diego State Aztecs, the Huskies led comfortably most of the way and cut down the nets with 76-59 victory.
The evening began in encouraging fashion for San Diego State, as the Aztecs did something that was foreign to UConn’s previous three opponents. San Diego State made its first three shots, including a pair of three-pointers, and UConn fell behind at the under-16 timeout after trailing for less than a minute in the previous three games combined.
UConn guard Tristen Newton struggled with early on-ball pressure, committing three turnovers in quick succession, but the Huskies were also able to establish control near the rim. UConn’s length was an immediate deterrent with strong contests and a pair of blocked shots in the paint, and the Huskies also opened by making six of their first eight shots.
San Diego State also encountered a lengthy offensive drought. The Aztecs missed 14 straight shots (the longest shooting drought any team had all tournament), failing to score for more than six straight minutes and eventually going more than 11 minutes without a single field goal. UConn used that dead period to mount an extended 20-5 run to take a double-digit lead.
After the Aztecs finally made a shot, things didn’t improve immediately for the underdogs. UConn zoomed to another 7-0 run, including a three-pointer that gave the Huskies a 16-point edge that felt utterly commanding.
San Diego State did turn up its defense near the end of the first half, keeping the deficit manageable in the process. The Huskies didn’t score for more than three minutes before halftime, and the Aztecs chipped away to climb back within a 36-24 margin with 20 minutes remaining.
UConn held San Diego State to just 8-of-28 shooting (including just 1-of-11 on contested shots in the lane) in the first half and, while some of that has to be attributed to the Aztecs’ struggles, the Huskies were locked in defensively for the final 12-plus minutes in impressive fashion. Still, UConn didn’t run away and hide, in part due to eight first-half turnovers that gave San Diego State a few extra opportunities.
Coming out of the break, the fireworks were at a minimum, with the margin hanging in the same range as it was during halftime. The notable exception was a missed dunk attempt by Jordan Hawkins, who tried to end the lives of anyone in his path and was unsuccessful.
On defense, San Diego State did more than enough to keep things interesting, forcing UConn to miss five of its first seven shots in the second half. The Huskies were able to keep their distance, though, as the Aztecs continued to struggle with shot creation and conversion. San Diego State was just 3-of-12 from the floor to open the half and still facing a 15-point deficit after more than eight minutes.
There was a run coming from SDSU, and it finally materialized over a three-minute period in the middle of the half. After a three-pointer by UConn’s Joey Calcaterra that put the Huskies back up 15, the Aztecs scored nine straight points behind a couple of jump shots from Jaedon Ledee, a triple from Keshad Johnson, and a layup from Darrion Trammell in transition. At the conclusion of that spurt, NRG Stadium sprung to life for the first time since the opening moments and the margin was down to six.
San Diego State climbed within five with 5:19 to go, prompting an eruption from a friendly crowd in Houston. On cue, UConn wing and projected first round pick Jordan Hawkins buried a gorgeous three-pointer off movement to at least briefly quiet the buzz.
That was followed by a couple of ugly moments from the San Diego State offense, including a drive to nowhere, a missed front end of a 1-on-1 at the free throw line and a couple of errant jump shots. That dry spell, coupled with a 9-0 run by a suddenly stabilized UConn unit, effectively spelled the end of the game with a 14-point margin and only two minutes on the clock.
San Diego didn’t wave the white flag, upping its pressure and trying to play the foul game with tempo in the closing minutes. However, no miracles came to fruition and, in short, the best team throughout the 2023 NCAA Tournament emerged with the title.
On offense, it wasn’t the prettiest night from UConn, especially when compared to its sky-high efficiency from previous rounds. Some of that credit goes to the San Diego State defense, but the Huskies did convert 24-of-27 free throws to take care of business. Newton bounced back from a rocky start and finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds at the point of attack, with Adama Sanogo adding 17 points and 10 rebounds and Hawkins contributing 16 points to go along with arguably the biggest shot of the game when things got dicey in the second half.
For San Diego State, the best season in program history comes to an end on a night when very little went according to plan on offense. The Aztecs shot just 32 percent from the field and 6-of-23 from three-point range. Even with its trademark quality defense, San Diego State needed more to overcome a talent and size disadvantage, and it wasn’t in the stars on this particular evening.
UConn, which entered the evening already rated as the No. 1 team in the country according to KenPom, didn’t play a perfect offensive game by any stretch, but the Huskies looked and felt the part of a national champion over the last three weeks while beating every tournament opponent by double figures. Dan Hurley’s team also ends the season without a single loss to a non-conference opponent and, with at least the potential for much of the roster to return, Huskies fans can start to dream big about another deep run in 2024.