UConn men awaken in second half on way to 87-63 NCAA opening victory over Rick Pitino, Iona

ALBANY – For a half it appeared the UConn men’s basketball team may have psyched itself out of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.

The Huskies, after fielding question after question about the Hall of Famer in the opposing coach’s box and about the first-round failures of the last two seasons, couldn’t stop Rick Pitino’s Gaels in the first half. UConn came out in the second half on a mission led by its two leading scorers, Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins, and put away Pitino’s squad, 87-63 on Friday.

UConn (26-8) advances to the second round for the first time since 2016 and will meet No. 5 Saint Mary’s on Sunday. The Huskies are now 19-4 in NCAA first-round games all-time.

Sanogo finished with a season-high 28 points and 13 rebounds, while Hawkins scored all 13 of his points in the second half. Andre Jackson, who grew up in Albany and attended high school at Albany Academy, finished with 10 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Donovan Clingan, who kept the Huskies in the game in the first half, scored 12 points with nine rebounds in 13 minutes on the court.

When Jackson was announced, last of the UConn starters, the spotlight followed him and the crowd in MVP Arena erupted with a hometown ovation similar to the one Bristol native Clingan received in Hartford.

Jackson didn’t smile when he was introduced. The junior forward home for business took little time before he made a 3-pointer on the game’s first possession, but Iona’s Berrick JeanLouis answered with a 3 of his own. JeanLouis made another after a dunk from Sanogo and, with a Daniss Jenkins mid-range shot, the Gaels had an 8-5 lead early on.

Less than three minutes later, UConn point guard Tristen Newton grabbed a loose ball and sprinted to the offensive end, the high-flying Jackson sprinted with him, collected the lead pass and cocked back both of his arms as he flew to the bucket to throw it down two-handed in transition to put the Huskies up, 14-11.

Pitino’s Gaels, who made seven of their first 10 shots from the field, answered with an 8-0 run of their own and UConn head coach Dan Hurley turned to his bench.

Joey Calcaterra and Nahiem Alleyne, both transfer guards, went back-to-back with made 3-pointers to get the Huskies up 23-19 near the midway point of the opening half. Clingan, the 7-footer, was dominant on the glass and had a considerable size advantage when he got the ball in the paint. The freshman scored eight points with eight rebounds in just nine minutes on the court in the first half.

Karaban came up big again with a 3-pointer to end another 8-0 Iona scoring run. Alleyne hit another 3-pointer and Clingan scored the final points of the half, but Iona led 39-37 at the break.

Iona, led by a game-high 11 points from JeanLouis at halftime, shot 48.5% from the field in the opening 20 minutes and made six of its 11 3-point attempts.

UConn, shooting 38.9% from the field, was 7-for-16 from beyond the arc thanks to Karaban, Jackson and Alleyne capitalizing from deep. But offensive struggles continued for Hawkins, the Huskies’ second-leading scorer who shot just 2-for-11 in UConn’s Big East semifinal loss to Marquette, went into the locker room scoreless.

The frustrated sophomore came out of the break knowing he needed to step up in order for the Huskies, nine-point favorites entering the game, to get past 13th-seeded Iona.

Wasting no time, Hawkins fired a 3-pointer on UConn’s first possession in the second half and was fouled as it fell through the net. After Jackson tossed a lob for Sanogo to throw down, Hawkins fired again. When his second 3-point shot fell, giving UConn a five-point lead, its largest at the time, the Husky fans woke up.

All of the sudden, UConn looked like the four seed it earned.

The Huskies’ second-half defense guided them to a 19-6 run through the first six minutes of the second half, Sanogo joined Hawkins to combine for UConn’s first 17 points out of the break.

Iona cut its deficit back down to eight points, but Calcaterra found Clingan in the paint and he was hanging on the rim with a 10-point lead in a blink. Calcaterra then got the Huskies up by 13 with his second 3-pointer of the game at the 11:29 mark.

Hawkins made his third 3-pointer of the second half with six minutes left, and was fouled while attempting another less than a minute later. Making all three from the line, Hawkins gave the Huskies a 77-59 lead and put the game out of reach, regardless of who was coaching the opposition.

When a long two-pointer from Sanogo put the Huskies up 84-63 with three minutes left, Jackson stood on the March Madness logo at center court and grabbed his jersey to show off the “CONNECTICUT” across the front as the UConn fans in attendance showered their team with praises.

UConn is now 5-1 all-time against Iona and improves 60-32 in 36 NCAA Tournament appearances.