‘They’re close to being bulletproof’: A united UConn team outlasts Alabama in Final Four showdown

UConn freshman Stephon Castle hangs from the rim and makes a strong offensive statement in the Huskies’ victory over Alabama that advances UConn to the NCAA men’s title game. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

Alabama forward Nick Pringle takes issue with an official’s decision during the Crimson Tide’s Final Four game against Connecticut. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

A powerful dunk by UConn’s Donovan Clingan sets the crowd off as the Huskies eventually pull away from Alabama at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE – All they do is win.

Sharing the message of a DJ Khaled song, the UConn Huskies did what they do best in their Men’s Final Four showdown against the No. 4 seed Alabama Crimson Tide: simply win as a team.

From the “U-C-O-N-N” chant that seemed to echo and bounce off every wall throughout State Farm Stadium to the families of players yelling at Alabama during free throws, UConn set out to control its destiny against an explosive offense in the Crimson Tide.

And they did just that.

By downing Alabama 86-72 Saturday night at State Farm Stadium, the Huskies earned a berth in the national championship for the second straight year.

“Just the same relentless effort (and) a meticulous approach to performance and winning, game planning with (assistant coaches) Luke (Murray) and Kimani (Young), two of the best in the country at what they do in every facet,” coach Dan Hurley said when asked what to expect in his approach to Monday’s game

The teamwork displayed by the Huskies and the ability to spark a run in the blink of an eye all start with their defensive anchor and 7-foot-2 big man Donovan Clingan.

Clingan, who finished the game with an impressive 18 points and four blocks, did more than what the box score tells.

His emotion and leadership helped propel this Huskies team to new heights and allowed not only his teammates but fans to feed off his energy, too.

The emotion displayed by Clingan caused an often stoic freshman guard Stephon Castle to let loose during an alley-oop dunk he made midway through the second half.

“I just sensed that we had started to spark a run,” Castle said. “I was just trying to get my teammates to have a little energy on the court. It was a great pass by T-New (Tristen Newton), so I kind of got fired up for it.”

Connecticut coach Dan Hurley is poised to lead the Huskies to a second straight NCAA title in men’s basketball. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

However, his focus after this Final Four win is what stands out most on this UConn team.

“We’re one step closer to our goal,” Clingan said. “But none of us in this locker room are satisfied. We know we have a lot of work to do (with) a big matchup on Monday.”

But “Cling Kong” wasn’t the only key player in this hard-fought UConn victory. Castle tied a career high with 21 points while snagging five rebounds.

“I had it going,” Castle said. “My teammates, they put me in great positions to be successful (and) I saw a couple shots fall in early. I just had it going.”

Castle wasn’t the only one to take notice of his career game.

“No, I’m not surprised at all,” forward Alex Karaban said. “We see it in practice every day. We always want to be aggressive, the opportunity. He had the opportunity at the beginning of the game to be aggressive, and he took advantage of it. We know how talented of a player he is on both ends of the floor.”

Clingan added that Castle is “not like any other freshman. He’s out there to do whatever his team needs for him to do to win (plus) he’s one of the best on-ball defenders that you’ll see. He puts a lot of work in. He’s the most unselfish player on this team.”

This winning attitude and selflessness have been seen throughout the season with UConn. At any given point, any one player can step up to the plate and deliver a great performance.

Even with the efforts made on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball by Clingan and Castle, Karaban also contributed by helping out with rebounding.

Finishing with eight, which led the team, Karaban was able to knock down open threes, including an early dagger to put the Huskies up by 13.

The Huskies offense is hard to stop, not only because of the players they have, but the constant motion and movement by every player on the court. It confuses defenses and allows for easy and efficient baskets.

But the impressive offensive scheme by Hurley is just scratching the surface of what UConn accomplishes, because they also have an elite defense that is ranked fifth in the country.

“They’re close to being bulletproof,” coach Nate Oats said. “When you’re that great on both sides of the ball, you out-rebound teams. The official box score had us down for zero fast break points (which is) the first time all year that that’s happened to us.”

This seemingly bulletproof group has a sense of pride in playing as a team instead of having a one-man show.

This mentality is why UConn has the chance to repeat as champions, a feat which has not been done since Duke and Florida.

But UConn is different from those two teams in that they have almost a completely different collection of players than they did last season, and that speaks on the culture up in Storrs.

“The culture, the preparation, the commitment to every aspect of the game so that we keep ourselves as bulletproof as possible in this tournament, which we make a hard tournament look easy,” Hurley said.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Addison Kalmbach expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Kalmbach has interned in broadcast operations at FOX Sports and as a digital reporter with PHOENIX Magazine and Detroit City FC. He also has done freelance work for R1S1 Sports.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.