Sports Journalism Blog

By Kobe Mosley | @mosleymedia8

Sports Capital Journalism Program

GLENDALE, Ariz. — For about the first 28 minutes of the game, Alabama seemed to be winning the battle of runs against defending champion UConn.

The Huskies failed to extend a lead greater than eight points during this stretch, thanks in large part to the Crimson Tide’s three-point shooting. In the first half, Alabama had hit 73% of their 3-pointers against a UConn defense that held its opponents to 29% from three this season.

And at the 12:41 mark of the second half, senior forward Grant Nelson made a hook shot for Alabama that tied the game at 56.

But from that point on, the Crimson Tide would make only five field goals — two coming in the last minute of the game — to UConn’s 12 field goals, resulting in an 86-72 victory that sends the Huskies to their second straight national championship game.

The Huskies (36-3) will meet Purdue Monday night at State Farm Stadium for the national championship. With the win, they also extended their record in the Final Four to 11-1, the best of any program in tournament history.

Alabama (25-12) was led by senior guard Mark Sears, who scored 24 points. Alabama’s five-point lead early in the first half was the largest deficit in the tournament for UConn. After trailing for a total of just 28 seconds in its first five games, the Huskies fell behind for 4:18.

UConn committed just four turnovers, the fewest this season, equaling the fewest by any team in the tournament. Tennessee had four turnovers in its victory over Creighton.

Freshman Stephon Castle led UConn in scoring with 21 points, tying his career-high. For someone playing in the biggest game of his young career, nerves did not seem to affect him. His performance under pressure did not come as a surprise to his teammates.

“Absolutely not,” replied fellow freshman and roommate Solomon Ball when asked if he was shocked by Castle’s play. “He’s been doing this the whole year and this was just his time to shine. He’s always shown up in big games when we needed him and for him to step up at this time is just tremendous.”

It was evident from the beginning of the game that Alabama’s game plan was to focus on containing sophomore center Donovan Clingan in the paint by sagging off on Castle. Clingan, who garnered the most attention from Alabama all game long, still put up 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting.

Castle, only a 26% three-point shooter this season, was open when he took the first 3-pointer and missed. But when he was left open again, he fired again and hit. Castle was not going to attack the lack of defense on him passively.

“It was kind of a disrespect on their end just to guard that far back,” Castle said. “I took advantage of it early. I saw the ball go in early. I thought it started a great night for me.”

Sophomore forward Alex Karaban did not have it going offensively early in the game. Going into the locker room at halftime, he took only one shot and missed it, scoring all four of his first-half points from the free throw.

“In the first half, I wasn’t getting an open shot,” Karaban said. “I didn’t want to force shots, I didn’t want to force threes because I felt like my teammates could get better shots. So I wasn’t too concerned about me offensively, I just had to make sure I stayed locked in on the defensive end. And then in the second half, I was able to get open looks and I was able to really make an impact on that end.”

Karaban finished the game with 14 points and eight rebounds, as did graduate guard Cam Spencer, who also earned a game-best plus-minus of 19.

On the defensive end, Clingan acted as a looming presence in the paint that absorbed most of what Alabama threw his way. Credit to the Crimson Tide for their willingness to go inside on Clingan, but his four blocks indicated that those shots were not high-percentage attempts.“They’re solid all around,” said Alabama’s Nelson, who finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds. “They have a really good rim protector. I feel like we didn’t really attack the rim with the physicality and the patience we should have.”

Physicality and patience will be key for UConn on Monday night when they will have to take on the historically futile task of guarding two-time consensus men’s Player of the Year Zach Edey and battling fellow one-seed Purdue. Clingan is ready for the highly anticipated matchup, knowing that a fellow 7-footer stands in the way of his team and basketball immortality.

UConn will become the only team since 1999 to play in six national championship games. With a win, the Huskies would become the eighth team in NCAA Tournament history to win a title in back-to-back seasons and the first since Florida in 2007.

“I’m real excited,” Clingan said. “You play at this level to play big-time matchups, big-time games. I have a lot of respect for Zach Edey, he’s a great player. Me and my team are going to get ready to battle and give everything we got on Monday.”