Two big halves – one by Clingan, one by Sanogo – really made the difference in UConn men’s opening win over Iona

ALBANY – Adama Sanogo came into the UConn locker room at halftime of the Huskies’ NCAA Tournament first-round game against Iona knowing he needed to step up for his season to continue.

The two-time Big East first-teamer had only six points and three rebounds in 11 first-half minutes and UConn trailed Rick Pitino’s Gaels, 39-37.

“It was not good, because we were down by two and we were not playing defense and we were not playing the way that UConn plays,” Sanogo said. “So we come in here, we talked as a team like, ‘This is not the way we play. We’re getting blown by, they’re getting wherever they want. We’re not playing UConn defense right now.’ So second half we had to make some adjustment, that was the adjustment: playing good defense.”

Immediately, Sanogo and fellow first-team member Jordan Hawkins, who couldn’t get a shot to fall in the first half, combined to score UConn’s first 17 points after the break.

“We grabbed (Sanogo) at halftime because he was pressing in the first half. He was hesitant. I think he carried the weight of getting us out of the first round, I think a little bit too much in the first half,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “Adama, don’t hesitate. Just go up and finish. There’s no one that can deal with you down there.”

In just five minutes, a two-point UConn deficit turned into an 11-point UConn lead, and Sanogo was rolling.

“Things were not going our way, we were not making shots. And coming into the game, me and Jordan knew we needed to do something positive for us to win this game. So that’s why in the second half our mindset was like, ‘Alright, I need to do something good to win this game,’” Sanogo said.

As the second half went on and Sanogo approached a career-high 28 points and 13 rebounds, it felt like he’d never miss.

“It was electric, and when those two get going it’s very scary,” redshirt freshman Alex Karaban said. “The atmosphere was crazy, everything felt electric. Adama felt unguardable, Jordan, when he’s on, he’s on, so it just opens everything up for everyone else. When those two get going I think it’s damn near impossible to beat us.”

Sanogo had the feeling that any shot he took would go in. And Hawkins flipped an 0-for-6 first half into a 3-for-5 second, highlighted by a trio of 3-pointers.

“I was like, ‘Yo right now, I’m definitely like – I’m hot right now,’” the 6-foot-9 center from Mali said. “So I was going for everything, I was getting defensive stops, so I was definitely hot at that moment, for sure.”

UConn dominated on the backboard, as it felt it should do and as Pitino expected. It started with Sanogo’s backup, Donovan Clingan, keeping the Huskies in the game in the first half.

Clingan came in for Sanogo at the 12-minute mark and scored four points with five rebounds in a five-minute stretch that gave UConn a 27-23 lead. After Iona came back to get up three, Clingan re-entered the game and scored four more points with three more rebounds, including the last bucket of the half that got the Huskies within two.

“Things were going bad, but Donovan went in, grabbed a couple offensive rebounds and scored and made some nice passes, it was good because things were going bad for us,” Sanogo said.

“I think our bench kept us in it,” Hurley added. “When we’ve been at our best, our centers have dominated the other team because obviously you have a dominant player in Sanogo, and then you bring an outstanding 7-footer in. When we’re at our best, our centers are giving us 30-plus points and high double-figure rebounds.”

Clingan finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, combining with Sanogo for a grand 40 points and 22 rebounds from the center position. UConn outrebounded Iona, 45-29.

“I want to congratulate Connecticut,” the Hall of Famer Pitino said. “They had a great second half. They physically dominated us at the five spot… I thought we had a legitimate chance of beating them going into the game, but we came out in the second half and they just dominated us. So they deserve all the congratulations.”

UConn faces a more challenging task on the glass with fifth-seed Saint Mary’s in the second round. Led by 17 points and seven rebounds from Mitchell Saxen at center and 12 points and 10 rebounds from guard Logan Johnson, Saint Mary’s outrebounded VCU 37-29 en route to a 12-point victory.

“We know what we’re in for,” Hurley said. “For Saint Mary’s to win the way that they won (Friday), obviously when you have a four-seed and a five-seed there’s very little separation between the two teams, the crowd will swell by Sunday – obviously a lot more Husky fans will now enter the building. But maybe not as big an advantage because it’s such a veteran team, they’re an older team, their physical. We know that surviving Sunday is gonna be an absolute war and a dog fight.”