AP Sports

Top-seeded UConn blows through another opponent, beating San Diego State 82-52 to reach Elite Eight

BOSTON (AP) — The rematch turned into another UConn mismatch.

Stephon Castle had 16 points and 11 rebounds for the defending NCAA champions, and the top-seeded Huskies advanced to the Elite Eight with another double-digit victory, beating San Diego State 82-52 on Thursday night in a rematch of last year’s title game.

Cam Spencer scored 18 points and Tristen Newton added 17 points and seven rebounds for UConn (34-3). The Huskies will play third-seeded Illinois, which beat Iowa State 72-69 later Thursday in the other East Region semifinal, on Saturday night for a spot in the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona.

A year after cruising to their fifth national championship — winning their six NCAA Tournament games by an average of almost 20 points — the Huskies followed up blowouts last weekend with their ninth straight double-digit March Madness victory.

They have won by 39, 17 and 30 points in this tournament.

“We suck at winning close games,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “You’ve got to go with the alternative.”

Backed by a virtual home crowd at TD Garden — Boston is about 90 miles from their Storrs, Connecticut, campus — the Huskies made it a double-digit lead early in the second half, 20 with about seven minutes left and 30 in the final minutes, after the teams sent in their benches. Hurley’s son Andrew even got into the game with 1:44 left, drawing a celebratory cheer.

“It means a lot just to be able to travel with our fans. … I feel like it gives us kind of a boost, a little bit of an advantage,” Castle said. “We tried to make it like ‘Storrs North.’ They showed out for us, and it was definitely electric in there tonight.”

Seven-footer Donovan Clingan, who played just 23 minutes after getting into foul trouble, had eight points and eight rebounds for UConn, which matched a school record for victories and gave the much-snubbed Big East a 7-0 record in the tournament. The Huskies trailed for just 28 seconds in the game and earned the largest victory in the Sweet 16 since Kansas beat Purdue 98-66 in 2017.

“I think the group, we have killer instincts. We play every possession with great desperation,” Hurley said. “Obviously, we’re very comfortable in tournament play.”

Jaedon LeDee scored 15 of his 18 points in the first half and Micah Parrish scored 10 for fifth-seeded San Diego State, which followed up the only Final Four appearance in school history with another Sweet 16 run.

But for the second straight year, the Aztecs (26-11) ran into UConn.

“It’s not the ending we’re going to remember; it’s the journey. Because the journey is everything,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “We’ve been on an incredible journey together.

“They’re 7-2 on college basketball’s biggest stage over the last two years. It’s something to take great pride in,” Dutcher said. “If losing a basketball game is the worst thing that’s going to happen in your life, you’re going to have a fantastic life.”

UConn is the first defending champion to reach the Elite Eight since Florida won it all in 2006 and ’07. No team has won repeat titles since.

“It’s kind of been against the odds in terms of the season we’re having, following up the national championship with an even better season,” Hurley said. “This team has defied what past champions have done and taken this program to a completely different level.”

UConn took its first 10-point lead before the midpoint of a first half in which both teams went cold about 10 minutes in. After opening a 27-16 lead with 11 minutes left, UConn shot 6 for 28 to finish the half — and still took a nine-point lead into the break.

The Huskies went up by double digits for good in the opening minutes of the second half when Newton — thanks to an offensive rebound and assist from Clingan — hit a 3-pointer to make it 45-33. Up 17 with eight minutes left, UConn scored the next nine points to pull away.

UConn won last year’s championship game 76-59 and also beat the Aztecs in the 2011 Sweet 16, with Kemba Walker scoring 36 points to set a tournament record and beat Kawhi Leonard’s San Diego State. The Huskies went on to win the school’s third national championship.

UConn won it all again in 2014. Last year, the Huskies made it five, pulling away after leading by five points with five minutes left to beat San Diego State 76-59.

“Either they’re better or we’re worse, I don’t know,” Dutcher said. “Yeah, they’re good. They’re connected. … They’re an outstanding team and will be very dangerous down the road.”

UP NEXT

The Huskies reached the Elite Eight for the 13th time. The last time they made it this far and didn’t win it all was in 2009, when Jim Calhoun’s team lost to Michigan State in the national semifinal.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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