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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What will it take for charmed San Diego State to overcome powerful UConn in NCAA final?

Connecticut's Andre Jackson Jr. (44) hangs on the rim after a second-half dunk against Miami during an NCAA Tournament semifinal at NRG Stadium on Saturday, April 1, 2023, in Houston.   (Tribune News Service)
By Blair Kerkhoff Tribune News Service

Dan Hurley is a straight shooter, and that’s among the reasons why his Connecticut Huskies are playing for the NCAA men’s basketball championship on Monday against San Diego State.

“When we’re playing harder than the other team,” Hurley said, “which is our calling card – playing elite defense and having a lot of answers on offense – there’s nowhere where we’re weak as a team. And we’re deep.”

Basically, Hurley is saying when UConn wants to beat an opponent, the Huskies can’t be stopped. And they’ve supported their coach’s confidence.

Saturday’s semifinal victory over Miami provided the latest example. Connecticut jumped to an early 10-point lead, lost it as the Hurricanes tied the game, then all but ran away with a 72-59 victory.

UConn won by playing its style while preventing the ACC regular-season champion from finding its identity for all but a few stretches.

Miami likes to push and has one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. Against UConn, the Hurricanes shot 32% and turned in their second-worst offensive performance of the season. This was one game after the Huskies held Gonzaga, with the nation’s top offense, to its lowest scoring total of the season.

Plus, Connecticut outrebounded Miami by nine, getting maximum efforts from forwards Adama Sanogo (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Alex Karaban (nine rebounds) – the duo also combined for four three-pointers – and six boards from 7-foot-2 freshman Donovan Clingan.

It added up to the Huskies’ fifth NCAA Tournament triumph by at least 13 points. Their average victory margin in the tournament is a robust 20.6.

The team that went 14-8 against Big East competition this season is 16-0 against outsiders.

“We are a unique team in terms of our style of play, which hurts you in conference play because people are a lot more familiar,” Hurley said. “They see you twice. The games are much more physical. When people see us for the first time with the two centers and all the shooting. So we’re a unique team.”

So is San Diego State, which has mastered the nail-biter in what has become a charmed run to the championship game in its first Final Four appearance.

The Aztecs outlasted Florida Atlantic 72-71 by cashing in on a last gasp. Lamont Butler’s buzzer-beating 15-footer will be remembered as one of the most clutch shots in tournament history.

According to ESPN, it was the first to reverse an outcome in a Final Four. The previous four buzzer-beaters, most recently Jalen Suggs’ shot for Gonzaga just inside halfcourt to beat UCLA in 2021, broke ties.

Butler’s game-winner also gave the Aztecs consecutive one-point victories. They held off Creighton in the regional championship game a week earlier.

And San Diego State’s comeback ability is not to be questioned. Against top-seeded Alabama, the second-half deficit was nine. Against the Bluejays, the Aztecs trailed by seven.

This was their biggest comeback, though, as the Aztecs were down 14 to the Owls early in the second half. But San Diego State chipped away, setting up the final opportunity after Florida Atlantic missed a shot with about nine seconds remaining.

“We’ve been in that position so many times throughout the year,” said Matt Bradley, who led the Aztecs with 21 points. “We’ve always been knocked down. But the biggest thing we do is get back up and keep fighting.

“We have a lot of maturity on this team. That (deficit) was nothing to us. We knew we had time on our side.”

Probably best for the Aztecs to not fall behind Connecticut in a similar manner. For a game that on the bracket looks close – UConn is a No. 4 seed, San Diego State is a No. 5 – the Huskies are a 7 1/2-point favorite. That’s the largest spread for a title game since North Carolina went off as a 7 1/2-point favorite over Michigan State in 2009 (the Tar Heels easily covered).

A larger points spread: UConn was a nine-point underdog to Duke in 1999, the year the Huskies won the first of their four national championships in a game considered one of the biggest upsets in title game history.

Perhaps San Diego State will be the charmed team this time.