HOUSTON – Adama Sanogo stood on the sideline watching his UConn teammates dribble out the final seconds to secure the program's fifth NCAA championship. He looked eager, ready to sprint in at the first chance.
When the horn sounded, reserve Andrew Hurley used both hands to spike the basketball near midcourt and start the celebration — only to see Sanogo run straight in and secure it like a fair catch.
“I need that ball. That’s a ball I want to save for my kids, my grandkids," Sanogo told The Associated Press. "I need that ball.”
It was fitting for the first souvenir to go to the big man who had been the rugged interior presence all season for the Huskies.
Sanogo finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds in Monday night's 76-59 win against San Diego State in the national title game. The 6-foot-9, 245-pound big man from Mali was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after tallying his fourth double-double in six tournament games, making him the centerpiece of the Huskies' dominant run to title No. 5 — just as he had been all season, really.
While teammates cut down the nets, Sanogo confessed that he had been planning all day to keep track of the ball at the horn if UConn completed its dominant tournament run.
“He was sitting on that one, I guess, before the game,” Hurley said with a chuckle.
And with Sanogo's play, was there really any question who deserved that ball?
“Oh, he has every right to keep it," guard Nahiem Alleyne said when told Sanogo snagged the ball. “He's the most outstanding player of this tournament. He's been a dominant force this whole tournament. I mean, without this guy, we wouldn't be here, simple as that.”
After coming into the game averaging team-highs of 17.2 points and 7.6 rebounds, he was efficient, going 5 for 9 from the field and 7 for 8 from the foul line. He was active, with five of his rebounds coming on the offensive glass. And it all came from a player who has spent recent weeks managing a strict fast from dawn until sunset to observe Ramadan as a Muslim.
“He wanted to step up,” forward Alex Karaban said. “He wanted this moment so badly.”
For Sanogo, it was the end of a yearlong push after a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament in a loss to New Mexico State. That included getting to visit with former UConn great Emeka Okafor — the top big man on the program’s 2004 title winner — last fall and picking his brain about what it would take to win a championship.
Roughly seven months later, Okafor was standing on the court, watching the Huskies players cut down the nets and pose for trophy photos.
“He’s just done an excellent job being just a foundation,” Okafor said.
“He did it defensively, he did it offensively. He made big plays when you needed it. And this past weekend he did it while fasting. I think that’s just a testament to his mindset, his will and his dedication to achieving the goal set to achieve at the beginning of the year.”
His biggest offensive rebound came after UConn's once-comfortable lead had shrunk, the pressure rising. Tristen Newton drove into the paint and launched a floater that bounced off the back of the rim, only for Sanogo to jostle a San Diego State rebounder for position and bat the ball with his right hand off the backboard and straight through the net for a 58-50 lead with 7:12 left.
It was part of a night when the Huskies squandered most of a 16-point first-half lead, but kept coming up with key plays — a stop here, a basket there — after the Aztecs kept repeatedly pushing back and got as close as five with 5 1/2 minutes left.
Ultimately, UConn reestablished its comfortable margin down the stretch, allowing coach Dan Hurley to sub out his top-of-lineup guys to enjoy the finish from the bench. That included Sanogo checking out with 30.2 seconds left and walking straight to Hurley, who was already locked in a hug with Karaban.
It didn't matter. The big man wrapped his arms around both Hurley and Karaban to turn it into a brief group hug to share the moment.
Well, except for making sure to snatch that ball once the horn sounded.
“I'm definitely keeping it,” he said with a big smile. “Yeah, definitely, definitely.”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25