West final pairs red-hot No. 4 UConn, No. 3 Gonzaga
Three games later, nobody is taking the fourth-seeded Huskies lightly. They have won those games by an average of 20.7 points to crash the West Region final and will battle third-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday night in Las Vegas for a spot in the Final Four.
The fabulous run has UConn (28-8) in the Elite Eight for the first time since winning the national title in 2014. Taking the next step won't be easy, as the Bulldogs (31-5) have won 12 straight games to reach the Elite Eight for the fifth time in the past eight NCAA Tournaments.
But after thrashing Arkansas 88-65 in the Sweet 16 for their 12th win in 14 games, the Huskies are playing as well as any team in the tournament. And the journey began after that embarrassing 70-63 loss to New Mexico State 12-plus months ago.
Coach Dan Hurley met with Adama Sanogo, Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson Jr. and apologized for not putting more talent around them. He promised it would be different in March 2023.
"We were in Coach's office, and he really just told us things are going to change now," Jackson recalled. "And he just told us we're all captains. And we hold part of that on our shoulders, too -- we're going to take part of that blame when you feel that pain.
"We really, from that moment on, from that day on, we just really held each other to a higher standard and just told each other we're going to push for a national championship."
Sanogo, UConn's star, has team-best averages of 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds. He is averaging 23.3 points and 9.7 rebounds and shooting 75 percent from the field (33 of 44) in the NCAA Tournament.
Hawkins had a team-best 24 points against Arkansas to raise his season average to 16.1. He has knocked down a team-high 98 3-point baskets. Jackson is a playmaker who averages 6.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
Together, they helped the Huskies become a dangerous team.
"We're playing our best basketball right now because we know we have a good team," Sanogo said. "We play for UConn. UConn is the place, people care about you, people want to see you do good. We know it's awesome, and every time we play, we want to show people wrong."
Gonzaga coach Mark Few doesn't need much convincing.
"I think they're playing probably better than anybody in the tournament right now," Few said. "I've got to see them several times. They've just done a fabulous job of roster building. The pieces they have fit really, really well."
The Bulldogs rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to post a 79-76 win over second-seeded UCLA in the Sweet 16. Julian Strawther's go-ahead 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds left was the big shot.
"Nothing was going our way," Strawther said. "We weren't playing our brand of basketball at all through that whole first half. We flipped that switch. And there's not a lot of teams in the country who could bond together and make a run like that."
Gonzaga star Drew Timme put on a show with 36 points and 13 rebounds. He set an NCAA Tournament record with his 10th career 20-point outing.
The Bulldogs outrebounded UCLA 50-26 and collected 16 on the offensive end. Things might be tougher against the Huskies, who outrebounded Arkansas 43-31.
"It's going to be a battle," Timme said. "We'll have to play hard and gritty, and we're going to have to get dirty and nasty, do whatever it takes to win because they have a hell of a duo, big-man punch. It's going to be a war."
UConn has won three of the previous five meetings with Gonzaga, including a 67-62 victory to reach the 1999 Final Four en route to winning the national championship.
--Field Level Media
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