HOUSTON – UConn got the shots it wanted and made life miserable for San Diego State defensively, looking like it was going to turn the national championship game into a runaway.
The Huskies knew the Aztecs would push, scrap and claw their way back. Their defense was too good, their will too strong.
For a stretch, the Huskies buckled. It still ended in another rout.
UConn dominated at both ends early and pulled away after San Diego State's defensive clamp down, finishing off one of the most dominant NCAA Tournament runs with a 76-59 win over the Aztecs on Monday night.
“We keep our composure,” UConn guard Jordan Hawkins said. “It doesn't matter what we go through, we're going to stick together no matter what.”
Picking apart San Diego State's menacing defense while draining the Aztecs' offensive confidence, the Huskies (31-8) had fans wondering whether they should keep watching, building a 16-point lead.
San Diego State (32-7) got back in it by getting in the Huskies' faces, trimming the lead to five with five minutes left. UConn responded by fighting back, pushing the lead until it had the fifth all-double-digit run through the NCAA Tournament since the bracket expanded in 1985.
The title was UConn's fifth, matching Duke and Indiana for fourth most all-time. It was the Huskies' first national title since 2014 and first under coach Dan Hurley, who added to his family's legacy with another title for the mantel.
“I’ve had my own path, my own journey,” Hurley said. “I’ve probably done it to myself by being such an intense, fiery coach, that people have always focused more on the sideline kind of antics than my total body of work over the course of my career.”
The Huskies made it look easy early, just as they had the previous five NCAA Tournament games.
Adama Sanogo established deep post position early, scoring inside while forcing the Aztecs to shade toward him or double team. UConn's guards repeatedly found cracks in San Diego's defense, getting into the lane for floaters and kickouts for 3s.
The Huskies were downright nasty defensively, swatting shots, jumping into passing lanes, contesting shots all over the floor.
Sanogo, Adam Karaban and 7-foot-2 freshman Donovan Clingan caused so many problems at the rim, the Aztecs started avoiding the paint altogether. Nathan Mensah even passed up an open jump hook to pass to a teammate who wasn't looking. Hawkins followed the turnover with a 3-pointer that put the Huskies up 26-14.
Even when the Aztecs got open shots, they couldn't get any to fall. San Diego missed 14 straight in a span of 11:07 as UConn stretched its lead to 36-20.
“Their length bothered us at the rim,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said.
The Aztecs like to muddy the waters and finally were able to bog the game down to their liking in the second half. San Diego State kept the Huskies from getting those easy shots inside, stayed connected with their perimeter shooters and cut off those drives into the lane.
The problem: the shots still weren't falling, so UConn's lead hovered in double figures.
Overplaying got the Aztecs back in it.
San Diego State got a couple of steals to set up transition baskets and they gained confidence with each shot that fell. The Aztecs rallied from at least eight down to win their previous three games, and rattled the Huskies with a 9-0 run, pulling within 56-50 as NRG Stadium went from snoozy to a potential doozy.
“We knew when we were down, it wasn't over with,” San Diego State guard Adam Seiko said. “We've been in that position many times this year.”
So had UConn. Playing in the brutal Big East had prepared the Huskies well for this moment.
Hawkins hit a 3-pointer off a screen to send UConn's fans bolting from their seats, San Diego State fans slumping in theirs. Their confidence back, the Huskies reeled off nine straight points to push the lead back to 14, forcing the Aztecs into rushed shots in an attempt to pull off a miracle that never happened.
San Diego State's latest comeback bid fell short, leaving the Aztecs one game short of their first national championship.
The Huskies kept the lead in double digits, giving Hurley time to pump his fists before the confetti canons had even fired.
A championship earned.
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