LAS VEGAS (AP) — After UConn lost as a 5 seed to 12th-seeded New Mexico State in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, Huskies coach Dan Hurley told his core players they would be back on this stage.
Not only would they return, but Hurley said he would surround them with players capable of taking them deep into March.
They are certainly doing that.
The Huskies’ 88-65 victory over Arkansas in the West Region semifinals on Thursday night was their third by double digits in as many games. Jordan Hawkins scored 24 points to lead the dominant effort.
Fourth-seeded UConn (28-8) will play No. 3 seed Gonzaga on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four, a stout response to last year’s early exit.
“We really from that day on really held each other to a higher standard and just told each other we’re going to push for a national championship,” UConn guard Andre Jackson Jr. said. “We’re going to push for that type of standard every day in practice and we’re going to hold each other to that.”
UConn is playing like a team capable of winning its fifth national title and first since 2014. The Huskies have outscored their three March Madness opponents by 62 points.
“They’ve got a real complete team, probably the most complete team in the country,” Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV said. “I think they can definitely win it all.”
The Huskies won their first two games by outscoring Iona and Saint Mary’s by a combined 86-49 in the second half. UConn surged early against Arkansas with a 14-point run and took a 46-29 lead into halftime.
The Huskies never trailed and led by as many as 29 points.
UConn, which has won nine of its past 10 games, shot 57.4% compared to 31.7% for Arkansas. The Huskies dominated inside, outrebounding the Razorbacks 43-31 and outscoring them 42-24 in the lane.
Adama Sanogo scored 18 points, Alex Karaban had 11 and Nahiem Alleyene 10 for UConn. Sanogo, who also had eight rebounds, has scored 71 points in 75 minutes in this tournament.
Anthony Black led Arkansas (22-14) with 20 points, Council had 17 and Nick Smith Jr. 11.
“I’m just proud of the way we’ve built this thing,” said Hurley, who is in his fifth season. “We’ve got an incredible group of players, and we get the right type of people and we’ve got great culture. We’re right where we thought we would be.”
MAKING PROGRAM HISTORY
Eighth-seeded Arkansas was seeking a third straight appearance in the Elite Eight, which would have been a first for the program. The Razorbacks made three consecutive Sweet 16s for the second time.
“There are not a lot of teams that have been to three straight Sweet 16s in the entire country, and we are one of them,” coach Eric Musselman said. “The culture is strong. As a staff, we’ll start working towards next year tonight as soon as we get back to the hotel.”
Senior Kamani Johnson won’t be around next season to see if the Razorbacks can get back to this point, but he said the program is in good hands.
“We’re doing something special in Arkansas and we’re of building on that,” Johnson said. “It hurts right now, but I’m really proud of this group.”
UConn improved to 15-0 in nonconference games, all by double digits. Oklahoma State came the closest, losing 74-64 on Dec. 1.
“When people see us for the first time, it’s a great advantage to us because we are not a ball-screen heavy team,” Hurley said. “We have a lot of movement on offense. We’ve got the two centers (Sanogo and Karaban) that can dominate a game. We’re a unique team to play against if you haven’t seen us.”
SPREADING THE WEALTH
As dominant as UConn was inside, the Huskies also made 9 of 20 3-pointers and had 22 assists.
“To me, the most impressive thing is that they had 22 assists,” Musselman said. “We tried to cause turnovers and rush the quarterback, but 22 assists is a lot of assists.”
UConn entered the game averaging 17.4 assists.