LAS VEGAS – On the merciful end, there wasn’t much you might notice from UConn. There is no springy dash from the seat to the playing floor. No jumps, hugs or jump hugs. No laxative cries. Just smiles and a line of handshakes, another clinical sequence in a night heavy for them. The cameras came out and she definitely wanted something more, and all the huskies who gave a shake were happy.
They have made a powerhouse crumble. They ended the college career of a legend in a headband. They reached the Final Four. Maybe they’ll give you something if that’s not exactly what was supposed to happen when this version of this program plays basketball. But this was supposed to happen. Hawks don’t dance around killing. “It’s O’Conn,” said senior guard Naim Allen in the packed, sultry locker room. “They’ve won four (national titles). We’re trying to win five.”
Dig into the confetti-covered carnage at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night, and you’ve found a warning. The Western Region final score was 82-54. The team with the lowest number was Gonzaga. These are arguably the top two programs left in this unfathomable NCAA tournament. Even if the Spokane boys weren’t perfect, they were reasonably sure, led by one of the sport’s all-time greatest winners. UConn turned all of that into a November buy-in game, just in late March.
Huskies on Saturday were impossible. Two men close to triple-doubles—one of whom is the starting center—and another young man shooting six seconds, the defense that holds the nation’s No. 1 offense to a relatively horrendous 0.771 points per possession. “It’s a lot,” said an exasperated Mark Vue afterwards. These are the details, and we should note them, but they hardly matter. We could talk about fateful mistakes and fateful foul calls and Andre Jackson Jr. being all over the place at once, and time wasted.
All that is relevant is that the Huskies’ best shots were far beyond what the Zags could handle, and the Zags didn’t make their best shot because basically they weren’t allowed to. It’s been like that for a while, with this particular UConn team. Which is now the bat signal in the Houston sky, just hoarse with his tongue out. All first seeds may be done in the event, officially, but that sounds like a clerical error now. “What a performance for the boys,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley. “To do what we’ve done for a team of this caliber, a program of this caliber – we were just playing at a very high level. Obviously we were surprised by the margin of victory, but we weren’t surprised about where we were going next. Because that’s where we’ve been for a large part of the season.” “.
Clingan hammers her home 🔨# March Depression @employee pic.twitter.com/Bc9Ddaw93u
– NCAA March Madness (MarchMadnessMBB) March 26, 2023
A big part, yes. Not all of its parts. Just two weeks ago, Hurley stopped outside the team’s locker room at Madison Square Garden, right after winning the Big East tournament, grinning as he deflected a question before it was asked. He speculated that his interviewer was wondering how UConn could look like a team that could beat anyone one moment and then look like a team that couldn’t beat anyone the next. He was right. The only variable for March was which identity would prevail.
This mode is no longer fluid. UConn has become a team notable for what it can do, but famous for what it can do to you.
On Saturday, Drew Tim finished. not easy. Others have tried and failed this month. However, the Huskies slammed the storyline onto Timmy’s fingers. They made him shake just enough to induce a very poor tackle decision early in the second half, which resulted in a charge being called and his third personal foul. A fourth followed less than two minutes later—helping Jackson’s collarbone under the basket, on a missed shot—and Gonzaga fans will scream about the call until the end of days. But Timme isn’t in that position if he made a smarter play earlier. And he didn’t play smarter because he wanted to run his team. And he needed to get his team running because it wasn’t there at all, thanks to the other team on the floor. “Bottom line they were the better team tonight,” said Timmy. “They made more shots. They got 50-50 off the ball. No matter if we want to say what if, the umpires didn’t control that game. They were the better team.”
After an under-8 media timeout, down 20 or more points, Gonzaga settled into territory. The franchise couldn’t be more clear. Only a few wanted to get his team out alive. It left Timme on the floor until 113 seconds remained, though, for a well-deserved curtain call. The Zags star unbuttoned his shirt and stuck out his tongue after cuddling with his coach. Everyone hugged on the sidelines. Timmy then settled into a seat next to junior guard Malachy Smith, his face turning red, and covered him with a towel as emotions built up as time ran out. At 8:08 pm local time, Timmy removed his headband. Three minutes later, he was hand-to-hand with young Julian Strother at the top of the incline, and disappeared into the back hallway. No cameras waiting this time.
“I’m so grateful that the show and the place took me to who I was,” Timmy said. “They didn’t ask me to be anyone but myself. And while this journey may not end the way we wanted it to, it’s about the journey. The relationships. The good, the bad, and the ugly. That’s what makes these things so emotional, is how much You put him in something. And I would do anything for Gonzaga. I always will. This isn’t goodbye. It’s see you later.”
Almost at the exact moment he said those words, the last rope of nylon was snapped, all the way down that slope. Jackson walked away from the celebration to wrap up the UConn squad. His head coach headed towards the middle district, asking someone to bring his wife, two sons, and the regional championship trophy to the general district.
In fact, the whole damn squad followed the pic for another mandatory festive group. Hurley thought so, until someone suggested it might have been a good idea to take a shot with the nuclear family. So he did. He guessed that was also until his assistants walked around to get a pic. That was it in the end. “Good!” announced the UConn coach. “We’re out!”
His father laughed at the sight of his youngest son, the 50-year-old Division I coach, walking triumphantly off the ground with his hat pulled back and the net dangling around his neck. But Bob Hurley Sr. was proud as hell. “Oh my God,” he said, hugging his child again. The 26 state championships she won at a small Catholic high school in New Jersey now move to Houston. A bright, shiny ornament added to an empty spot on the family crest. Dan Hurley said of the pops, and anyone who knew anything about St. Anthony High school knew it was no frills. “It all started with my dad. We’re just lucky that we grew up in Jersey City and found basketball and had a dad push us. And now I can take my dad to the Final Four.”
There was ambivalence among the players afterward regarding the metaphorical background of UConn as a program—”Back,” Jackson said, “but we never left”—but some of the confusion is understandable.
There is nothing “back” about this particular team at this very moment. Everything forward, rolling downhill with the brakes.
Four teams will be in Houston next week for the Final Four. One is UConn. The other three might not want to get their hopes up.
(Top photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)