ALBANY, N.Y. — Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino issued a warning about UConn to the rest of the teams in the NCAA Tournament, but most pressing, to Saint Mary’s.
“They physically dominated us at the five spot,” Pitino said after his Iona team fell in an 87-63 drubbing to UConn in the first found on Friday night before adding, “they’ve got all the metrics to win a National Championship.”
Then, the two-time National Championship-winning coach rattled those metrics off.
The assists. The dominance on the glass. The high shooting percentage, even from three. The backups that could be starters.
Forget a Cinderella story, Saint Mary’s is going to need to have its David vs. Goliath moment in the second round of the NCAA Tournament today.
As the fifth-seeded Gaels get set to take on fourth-seeded UConn, they’re facing a blue-blood program ready to regain its national prominence; playing in a venue a couple hours from campus.
“Obviously you can’t really stop that. They have a great fan base, and it’s going to be loud in there,” Saint Mary’s guard Alex Ducas said. “We’re a very composed team, and we trust in the five guys on the court and the guys who are supporting us on the bench. We’ve just got to keep a tight-knit huddle and keep relaying the message to each other, that it’s OK.
“We’re playing a road game. We’re used to it. We’re used to not having very many fans on the road. So it’s not new to us. We’ll fight wherever it is.”
They’ll do so at MVP Arena at 6:40 p.m. with a trip to Las Vegas in the West Region and the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2009-10 at stake.
And that five spot Pitino was referring to? The goliath Adama Sanogo. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound All-Big East big man for UConn dominated in the first-round matchup vs. Iona, notching a double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds.
Along with the 7-foot-2, 265-pound freshman Donavan Clingan anchoring the Huskies, the Gaels frontcourt led by 6-10 All-West Coast Conference center Mitchell Saxen will have its hands full.
“I back my big man Mitchell Saxen all the way. I know he’s going to bring the effort every time,” Ducas said. “Obviously they have good two big men in their players, but I think we’ll be fine. We play hard. We play strong. We don’t give up. We love to fight, and we play physical. So I think it’s going to be an exciting matchup.”
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Another key matchup is the contrasting playing styles of a team that likes to get out and run in UConn, and a Saint Mary’s team that likes to slow the game down. Bleeding out the shot clock in possessions and draining the clock — along with stifling defense – helped the Gaels hold VCU to a season-low 51 points in the first round on Friday night.
“We definitely want to get them out of their pace. When we play our style, it’s very hard to beat us,” UConn’s Alex Karaban said. “We’re just going to play our style of basketball. We’re going to play defense and try to get out there and run, which we’ve been pretty successful at. If we do that, I think we’ll be just fine.”
And the Gaels are just fine where they are. Overlooked, and picked to lose.
“Being underdogs and proving everybody else wrong, it’s exciting. It’s what you want,” senior guard Logan Johnson said. “We talk about it all the time. All these people doubt us. We’ve got a bunch of doubters, and we love to prove people wrong.”