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UConn stymies Purdue in title game, becomes first back-to-back men’s champions since 2007 Florida

GLENDALE, Ariz. — With exactly six minutes left in Monday night’s national championship game, UConn guard Tristen Newton zoomed a pass to a cutting Stephon Castle, who skipped past Zach Edey in the paint and laid in an ordinary layup. Except it was only ordinary in execution, because that basket put the Huskies up 17 points, their largest lead of the night.

Consider that the moment the hourglass flipped, and time started ticking until UConn’s looming championship celebration.

Minutes later, the confetti cannons inside State Farm Arena erupted, finalizing UConn’s 75-60 win over Purdue in Monday’s national title game and immortalizing Dan Hurley’s Huskies, who accomplished what no college basketball team had since Florida in 2006-07: winning consecutive NCAA championships.

That feat alone is historic. Other than Florida, only Duke in 1991-92 had gone back-to-back since John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty in the 1960s and ’70s. But it’s the way that UConn won its 12th consecutive NCAA Tournament game — by effectively turning into the basketball version of a wood chipper — that lifts this two-year stretch to legendary status.

“I think it’s up there in terms of the greatest two-year runs that a program maybe has ever had,” Hurley said, before noting his older brother, Bobby, played on that Duke repeat champion. “To me, it is more impressive than what Florida and Duke did because they brought back their entire teams. We lost some major players.”

Last season, UConn won its six games in the Big Dance by a staggering average of 20 points per contest. Then three starters left. Somehow, Hurley’s encore squad was even more dominant. After UConn’s 15-point victory over the Boilermakers, who were playing in their first national title game since 1969, the Huskies’ average victory margin this tournament was a whopping 23.3 points per game. That not even the Boilermakers — a No. 1 seed with two-time Wooden Award winner Zach Edey — could keep the final score to single digits speaks to UConn’s overwhelming dominance. The 7-foot-4 Edey finished Monday’s game, likely his last in college, with 37 points and 10 rebounds. It mattered little.

And if this wasn’t already the case, go ahead and formally welcome UConn’s to the blue blood club. Monday’s win was the Huskies’ sixth NCAA title, pushing them past Duke — which has five — and into a tie for third all-time with North Carolina. Only UCLA (11) and Kentucky (eight) have more. That all six championships have come in a 25-year span since 1999, and under three different coaches, only further validates Connecticut’s place in college basketball’s historic hierarchy.

The same can be said of Hurley; the 51-year-old is now only the third active Division I men’s coach with multiple national titles, joining Bill Self and Rick Pitino.

“Not everybody can do what they just did,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said after the game. “You have to give credit to their defense and their coach and how they’re wired.”

He deserves plenty of credit for UConn’s masterful game plan Monday night. Stopping Edey is an impossible task. Even in a battle of the two best bigs in America — Edey vs. 7-foot-2 UConn center Donovan Clingan (11 points, five rebounds) — the Big Maple was always going to get his. He scored 16 of Purdue’s 30 first-half points. But UConn countered well late, holding Edey without a basket in the final 5:47 before halftime. During that stretch, the Huskies extended their lead to six.

At the same time, UConn completely smothered Purdue — which entered as the second-best 3-point shooting team in America, making 40.6 percent from deep — from behind the arc. Hurley’s strategy of not having UConn’s guards help when Edey got the ball inside meant Purdue’s perimeter players had no breathing room. Case in point: Purdue only attempted one 3-pointer in the first 17 minutes of the game. It wasn’t until Braden Smith canned a fadeaway 3 with the shot clock expiring, 2:17 before intermission, that the Boilermakers actually made a triple.

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Offensively, the difference between the teams’ philosophies couldn’t have been more pronounced. Edey took 12 of Purdue’s 28 first-half attempts, making more shots than the rest of the Boilermakers combined.

“We knew he was going to get his points,” said Newton, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. “It took him 25 shots to get 37 points. That was the game plan, just limit the guards. Steph (Castle), Cam (Spencer) got in there and did a great job on the guards, limiting them and their impacts.”

On the flip side, while Spencer scored seven of UConn’s first 11 points, the Huskies leaned on their balance and depth. Four different Huskies — Spencer, Clingan, Hassan Diarra and Newton — had at least three made shots before any non-Edey Boilermaker did so.

That dichotomy became untenable for Purdue from the very first possession of the second-half. Edey missed a bunny inside, and UConn turned it into a Newton 3 on the other end — a critical five-point swing that pushed Purdue into an early danger zone. From there, what had been a back-and-forth battle between KenPom’s No. 1 and 2 teams — only the fourth time that’s happened since 2005 — became a lopsided, 20-minute-long march toward UConn’s coronation. A surprise putback dunk from freshman Camden Heide, off of another Edey miss, only briefly revived the Boilermakers’ hopes. They then went 4:29 without a made field goal, during which UConn pushed its lead to 16. Newton — who finished with 20 points, seven assists and five rebounds — was the maestro making it all happen in front of the packed arena of 74,423 fans.

The last made shot of that run was a Diarra layup in transition; Painter couldn’t have called timeout more quickly, sensing the game getting away from his team.

And he was almost right. Except the game wasn’t getting away by then; it was gone.

After UConn cut down the nets and celebrated with former Huskies greats on the court, Hurley said that going back-to-back-to-back would be the next goal.

“We’re going to be focusing on trying to put together a three-year run, not just a two-year run,” he said. “We’re going to maintain a championship culture. We’re bringing in some very talented high school freshmen. Our returning players, through player development, will take a big jump. We’ll strategically add through the portal.

“I don’t think that we’re going anywhere.”

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(Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

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