After a thrilling month of college basketball, the University of Connecticut Huskies were able to defeat the San Diego State University Aztecs by a score of 76-59 in the 2023 NCAA national title game and win their first men’s title since 2014. The win at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas was the fifth for the Huskies in their history, while it was the first for head coach Dan Hurley who took over the job in 2018 from legendary coach Jim Calhoun’s successor, Kevin Ollie. The Huskies were a team many had not expected to win the championship, given their fourth-place finish in the Big East, but quickly proved their doubters wrong. The Huskies won every game in the tournament by at least 10 points, and paced the entire bracket in offensive production.
Early on in the title game it was San Diego State that was able to grab a hold of the reins on the offensive side of the ball. The Aztecs shot their way to a four-point advantage within the first four minutes of the first half, but UConn woke up soon thereafter and responded accordingly. Big East player of the year candidate, third-year big man Adama Sanogo, was the key factor when it came to any momentum shifts. His abilities offensively and defensively under the basket became UConn’s calling card for the evening. Fourth-year Aztec forward Aguek Arop’s layup five minutes into the half was swallowed up by Sanogo via a huge block, before the Malian center drained a hook shot on the other end. The bucket sprang an unprecedented 19-4 run from Hurley’s side, and gave UConn the keys to winning the first half.
The Aztec offense struggled mightily to recover after failing to score a single field goal for an eleven-minute segment midway through the half, but still managed to close the gap to only 8 going into the second. Sanogo picked up right where he left off in the first half, scoring the first two buckets for the Huskies off of some smooth low post moves. UConn continued to fire away, with threes coming off the hands of first-year forward Alex Karaban and second-year guard Jordan Hawkins, working feverishly to preserve a ten-plus point lead.
Hurley and Co. successfully managed that feat until there were just over eight minutes to play in the second half, when 4th-year forward Keshad Johnson nailed a three and cut the lead down to 56-48. Things started to look as if they were going the Aztecs’ way when on the next defensive possession, fourth-year guard Darrion Trammell picked off a Husky pass and ran the length of the court to finish at the basket, igniting the bevy of SDSU supporters that had made the journey to Houston for the biggest game in their school’s history.
San Diego State nearly managed to get another stop on their 10-0 run, before Sanogo’s fully extended arm just barely tipped the rebound into the basket. The Aztecs refused to wane defensively, as this time third-year guard Lamont Butler stripped fourth-year guard Tristan Newton en route to a finish of his own. With just six minutes to play, SDSU had managed to trim the deficit to the smallest UConn lead since the opening minutes of the game, with the score 60-53. The Aztecs added on two more free throws, closing the gap now to just five with five to go.
In what will become a game-defining moment, Hawkins squared to shoot at the top of the key for UConn on the next possession, nailing a tightly contested three to beat back the growing Aztec attack. Another stop for the Huskies saw Newton drive to the paint and finish a no-look reverse layup in the face of an SDSU defender, sending the lead back to double digits. Down by 14 with two minutes to play, Trammell hit a tough off-balance jumper to break the lead down to 12, but the effort simply wasn’t enough. Following a few garbage time baskets, the UConn Huskies officially defeated the San Diego State University Aztecs by a score of 76-59, and were able to win their fifth NCAA men’s basketball championship in their existence. Newton paced the Huskies in scoring with 19 points and added on 10 rebounds, while Sanogo and Hawkins trailed just behind with 17 and 16 respectively. Sanogo himself added on 10 boards as well, emerging as the clear defensive anchor for his side.
Looking at a team like UConn, the hope here in Orono is that Chris Markwood and his roster of hungry talent can find a way to bring the Black Bears to the “Big Dance” for the first time in school history sometime in the near future.