UConn dominates in second half to avoid upset against Iona
Adama Sanogo scored 10 of his 28 points in the first five minutes of the second half as fourth-seeded UConn took control and beat Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels 87-63 Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskies (26-8) advanced to play fifth-seeded Saint Mary’s Sunday in the West Region after losing in the first round under coach Dan Hurley the last two seasons.
Iona (27-8) had its 14-game winning streak snapped as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion didn’t have the depth to keep up with one of the Big East’s best for 40 minutes.
Walter Clayton Jr. led the Gaels with 14 points.
Now the question is: What’s next for the Gaels’ Hall of Fame coach?
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Rick Pitino was coaching in his 24th NCAA Tournament and maybe his last with Iona. The 70-year-old seems to be in line for another high-profile job, with St. John’s as the apparent front-runner to land the two-time national champion.
UConn trailed by a point at half but came out of the break clicking. A four-point play by Jordan Hawkins immediately gave the Huskies the lead, and then Sanogo went to work inside.
The 245-pound junior had a dunk, a hook, a couple of layups and two free throws, scoring 10 of the Huskies’ next 13 points as they grabbed a 54-43 lead.
The Gaels never really threatened again. Sanogo’s turnaround jumper from the baseline with 6:49 left made it 71-57, and the Huskies cruised into the second round for the first time since 2016.
Hawkins added 13 points, all in the second half, and Sanogo capped his 13-for-17 shooting performance with a long-range jumper to beat the shot clock with 3:05 left to up the lead to 21. He also had 13 rebounds.
Pitino came in with a 54-20 NCAA record, but without a tournament victory since 2017, his last season at Louisville before he was fired amid the second NCAA scandal of his tenure.
Pitino was exonerated when the final ruling was handed down from that investigation just before the start of this season, leading to speculation that bigger schools would come calling when Iona’s season ended.
For a half, it looked like that might be at least another few days.
The pace was brisk, and the play was sharp from the start, a first-round matchup that felt a little like a regional final.
Pitino was dapper and active on the sideline in his black suit and silver tie. And the Gaels were fearless in the first half.
They pressured ballhandlers and played at a pace that had to feel familiar to Louisville and Kentucky fans who rooted for Pitino’s best teams.
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Berrick JeanLouis made his first two 3-point attempts and scored 11 in the first half for the Gaels.
Neither team led by more than four in the first 20 minutes, and Iona’s 6-foot-3 Daniss Jenkins seemed to send a message in the final minute when he came swooping in for an emphatic block on the 7-2 Donovan Clingan to keep the Gaels in front, 39-37, at the break.
UConn, however, had the final response.
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Iona: The Gaels fell to 1-16 all-time in the tournament with their only victory coming in 1980 under the late Jim Valvano against Holy Cross.
UConn: Hurley, in his fifth season at UConn, has the Huskies on the rise, with three straight NCAA Tournament bids after taking over a struggling national power. But they were one-and-done in his first two trips to March Madness, and he talked openly about the pressure to advance this week.
Iona: Maybe a new head coach?
UConn: The last time UConn made the round of 32, it lost to top-seeded Kansas in 2016.