ALBANY, N.Y. — UConn decided to return to its roots five years ago, hiring a former Big East guard as coach and then a couple years later returning to the conference where it became a national power.
Now the Huskies are back in the Sweet 16, looking like the beasts of the Big East again.
Adama Sanogo scored 24 points and Jordan Hawkins delivered from the 3-point line in the second half as UConn pulled away from Saint Mary’s for a 70-55 win on Sunday that put the Huskies in the Sweet 16 for the first time in nine years.
No. 4 seed UConn (27-8) advanced to the West Regional in Las Vegas on Thursday. Next up is eighth-seeded Arkansas, which knocked off No. 1 seed Kansas.
For the second straight game, the Huskies buried an opponent after playing a close first half. UConn outscored Iona and Saint Mary’s by a combined 86-49 in the second half in Albany this weekend.
“Eventually our depth, elite rebounding, top-20 defense, top-five offense, with the depth, I think we’re able to break some teams,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley, a former Seton Hall guard from New Jersey who was hired in 2018.
The Huskies last played in the second weekend of the tournament in 2014, when they won the most recent — and most surprising — of four national titles in a 15-year span. The first three of those titles came as a member of the Big East under coach Jim Calhoun, and all went through the West Region.
That last championship run came as a member of the American Athletic Conference, the league birthed from the Big East’s football-basketball breakup in 2013.
UConn went with the football schools and played seven years in the AAC, where its football program floundered while its vaunted men’s basketball team slipped into irrelevance.
With Hurley in charge, it has risen again, taking another step after being one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament the past two years at a place that never lost its lofty standards.
“I think in the first and even second round of tournaments, it’s more of a burden to play at UConn than it is an advantage,” Hurley said of the pressure.
These Huskies were up to the challenge.
Sanogo followed his 29-point game in the Huskies’ NCAA tourney opener with another powerful and efficient performance in the paint. The 245-pound junior was 11 for 16 from the floor and grabbed eight rebounds, dominating a big-man matchup with Mitchell Saxen (six points, three rebounds and four fouls).
Saint Mary’s (27-8) of the West Coast Conference failed to get out of the first weekend of the tournament for the second straight season as a No. 5 seed.
Aidan Mahaney and Logan Johnson each scored nine for the Gaels, who played the final 25 minutes without third-leading scorer Alex Ducas. The senior left with a back injury, coach Randy Bennett said.
“It’s not all on that. But it did affect our offensive efficiency, and I feel terrible for him,” Bennett said.
UConn used a 14-2 spurt, highlighted by a 3 from Hawkins with 11:28 left in the second half, to go up 51-40.
Hawkins had been scoreless to that point, but he added another 3 coming off a screen moments later to make it 56-45, and the “Let’s Go Huskies!” chants started to reverberate throughout MVP Arena.
“It felt great hitting those shots,” Hawkins said. “Finally found a rhythm.”
Hawkins wasn’t done, making back-to-back 3s to make it 62-47 with 6:38 left. He finished with 12 points.
Meanwhile, the Huskies defense was clamping down on the Gaels, who were held under 60 points for just the fourth time this season.
“We started to turn the ball over a little bit more, which led to them hitting some shots in transition, which really opened up the game for them,” Johnson said.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels, who have become Gonzaga’s closest rival in the WCC, have reached the Sweet 16 just once in program history in 2010.
“People always say, ‘Hey, get to the next level,’” said Bennett, who is in his 22nd season as Gaels coach. “We’ve been a five seed the last two years, and both years we’ve run into a really good team. Last year was UCLA.”
UConn: The Huskies go nine deep, which allows Hurley to keep his players fresh. Sanogo scored 53 points in 51 minutes in two games, with 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan providing 25 solid minutes off the bench.
“We have so many guys we can go to,” said Andre Jackson, who was playing close to his hometown of Amsterdam.
UConn: The Huskies are 3-1 all-time against Arkansas.