PORTLAND, Ore. — The UConn men’s basketball team posted their calling card on a national forum, something they haven’t done in years, and won Sunday night’s Phil Knight Invitational with a 71-53 win over Iowa State.
The men’s team joined the women’s program that clinched the Phil Knight Legacy title earlier in the day. Both teams can bag trophies for a lucky flight home.
“The first two hours are going to be fun,” said freshman Donovan Clingan, who became tournament MVP with 15 points and 10 rebounds. “Then we probably will [fall asleep]. It’s a long flight.”
The Huskies (8-0), ranked 20th, will climb several spots when the new AP poll is released Monday after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State by double digits to capture that heavyweight field in Portland. Victory in November events has historically been a precursor to championships for UConn men’s teams, and while it’s still very early in the season, the Huskies have had the answers for every opponent so far.
“We trust in our own abilities,” said newcomer Alex Karaban. “We have so much depth where anyone can climb. We have too many players for them to worry about. For us, me to take a big toss, Tristen to take a big toss, Donovan to win big time, it just speaks to how good we are as a team.
This game was a tough one, but UConn was up for the challenge, overtaking the Cyclones 48-19.
“The story for me was how tough we were,” said coach Dan Hurley. “Beating them at 29 just speaks to our toughness, our physicality. Preseason Player of the Year [Adama Sanogo] had a nauseous, not one of his best, nights, and to have Jordan [Hawkins] basically playing six minutes and beating a quality team in a league game by 18 points only speaks to the level at which this group is playing. …. We will win most tough battles.”
The Huskies led the final 33:50 of the game and by double digits for most of the time, although it didn’t feel like it often. The pressure from Iowa State took its toll on UConn, who had 19 turnovers, especially in the second half when the Cyclones didn’t have to worry about foul stacking.
With Hawkins on the bench with foul problems and Sanogo out of rhythm, the supporting cast jumped in, Tristen Newton and Karaban hit swing-changing threes as things got tight in the second half, and newcomer Clingan was the top tournament MVP with 15 points and 10 rebounds , one of several who could have won the honor for UConn. Clingan, the 7-footer Bristol freshman, could snatch the Big East freshman of the week honors from Karaban, who has won it for the past two weeks, with his strongest effort yet. Both freshmen made the all-tournament team.
“Being able to give Adama a break is important for him and the team to help as much as possible,” Clingan said. “I knew I was going to play behind Adama and I would just come in when he needed a break and come in and try to do what he’s doing to help the team win.”
But the dominant force for UConn was co-captain Andre Jackson, who as usual struggled to make his 10 points but was all over the floor, chasing rebounds and loose balls and disrupting Iowa State’s offense — at one point, as he intercepted a lob pass and passed it to a teammate behind his back — and dealt for the Huskies. Jackson added 13 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block.
“His impact is so much bigger than what the boxing score shows for him,” Karaban said.
“Sometimes I just stare at him like, ‘How did he do that?'” Clingan said.
“He’s like ‘American Ninja,’ man,” Hurley said. “The stuff that’s going on out there, the plays he’s making, what he’s messing up defensively, the points he’s taking off the board, the points he’s creating for 3-point shooters and scooters, I mean, he’s an incredible player to watch. Your eyes are drawn to him all the time.”
Jackson said, “Sometimes I come off the seat and I’m like, ‘What just happened?’ It’s kind of blurry. I try to be in the moment, to stay in this moment, in this state of flow. … I’m really hard on myself, I’m my biggest critic. I just always try to find ways to contribute to the win because that’s really the only thing I came here to win. ”
Newton scored 13 and Karaban 10. The Huskies shot just 34.5 percent in the first half but shot 50 percent in the second.
UConn had a tough first half shooting the ball, missing the edge more than in previous games and only going 3-on-15 for three. But the Huskies dominated the boards, hauling in plenty of rebounds to control the game and going into the break with a 38-28 lead.
The Huskies went 8-7 on Joey Calcaterra’s 3-pointer and held the rest of the half. Clingan was a force in the game, with eight points and five rebounds during a long stint off the bench, and the Huskies put Iowa State in dire trouble, scoring 15 points at the line and extending the lead to 35-22 with 2: 07 left in half. The Cyclones closed on seven, but Hassan Diarra’s 3-pointer on the buzzer gave the Huskies their double-digit lead at the break.
Iowa State’s press forced UConn to turnovers in the second half, but not enough to take the lead.
This is the first championship of any kind since Hurley became a coach, and it is the first of four championships the Huskies can shoot this season, with the Big East regular season, conference tournament, and NCAA tournament titles later stand on the table.
“We played three really good teams,” Jackson said. “We were really connected on the pitch, always trying to solve problems, always trying to figure out what they were trying to do to us and picking apart their defense and stopping on the pitch every time. It will cause disruption because everyone thinks the same thing and has the same mindset.”
Dom Amore can be reached at [email protected]