UConn Men basketball Championship: NEW YORK — As soon as Hassan Diarra poked away a steal down on the defensive end, he caught sight of his roommate, Samson Johnson, hustling out the corner of his eye.
“I glanced to the left, saw Sam making his move, and thought, ‘Got him,'” Diarra grinned. “Toss the ball anywhere, and he’s snagging it.”
Diarra lofted the ball towards the rim, and Johnson not only caught it but threw down a dunk, just like he did earlier in the game on a slick no-look lob from Cam Spencer. It’s the kind of play that makes UConn special, capturing those moments that define the game.
Playing at UConn isn’t just about the individual highlights; it’s about winning championships. And on Monday night, the fifth-ranked Huskies added another trophy to their already crowded case.
Johnson, with a career-high 15 points, Solo Ball making a powerful introduction, and Alex Karaban hitting three more shot-clock buzzer-beaters, led the team with 20 points in an 81-71 victory over No. 15 Texas in the Saatva Empire Classic championship game at Madison Square Garden.
UConn (5-0) extended its streak of winning nonconference games by double figures to 22, inching close to the record of 23 set by North Carolina in 2008-09. Next up, they host Manhattan on Friday and New Hampshire on Monday.
“We’re forgoing Thanksgiving,” joked Coach Dan Hurley. “Those guys indulging in turkey, they’ll be sluggish…”
He quickly added, “It’s been remarkable. Our offensive play is unique, having two high-level centers. The program exudes confidence; you step onto the court believing we’re going to win. We’re relentless—players, coaches—all out to beat you by as much as possible.”
Despite off nights from leading scorer Tristen Newton and top big man Donovan Clingan, the Huskies found a rhythm. Diarra, stepping up due to Cam Spencer’s foul trouble, contributed eight points, six rebounds, two steals, and notably, two blocked shots.
“I just wanted to be myself, bring energy, do my defensive part, lead the team, and be the best for my teammates,” said Diarra, a native New Yorker with a cheering section in the MSG crowd of 10,988.
Diarra’s defensive prowess was on display, hassling Texas top scorer Max Abmas and making crucial plays. In the first half, a block led to a long-range transition three by Karaban, propelling UConn to a 24-11 lead.
The Huskies extended their lead to 16, finishing the half up by 13. The only surprise was Diarra’s halftime heave, reminiscent of Jalen Adams, rimming out.
“He made numerous winning plays out there,” Hurley praised Diarra. “If we get nights like this from him consistently, it puts us in a great spot.”
UConn maintained a double-digit lead, but Texas, led by Dillon Mitchell, made a late surge, trailing by just four (71-67) with 5:23 left. Then, Karaban worked his magic, hitting a baseline jumper and another shot-clock-beater as the Huskies pulled ahead.
Karaban, displaying his clutch gene, added another shot-clock buzzer-beater with just over a minute left, sealing the win at 77-69.
“Me and Luke (Murray) claim credit for the offense, but we didn’t hit our stride until Alex joined,” noted Hurley. “Having a four-man who processes the game, keeps the group organized, and has the clutch gene… he’s a special player.”
UConn had previously defeated Indiana by 20 points on Sunday. Last season, they won the PK85 Invitational, setting the stage for their fifth national title.
Hurley, carrying cutout replicas of the trophies UConn aims for this season, marked the first victory. “Huge momentum for us,” said Karaban. “Winning a championship is something special for the new team. A taste of what we want with the Big East and national championships. It’s something great to build on.”
“We’ve got great potential to be a lot better than we are right now,” added Hurley.
And that’s a daunting prospect for the Huskies’ remaining opponents, starting with Manhattan after Thanksgiving, assuming Hurley doesn’t cancel the holiday.
This marks UConn’s second win in this tournament, with the first in 2013. The Huskies beat Detroit Mercy and Boston University at home, then Boston College and Indiana at MSG, paving the way for their fourth national title later that season.
UConn now boasts a 13-3 all-time record in this tourney.
• Texas played without Kadin Shedrick, their second-leading scorer (14.5 ppg), nursing a shoulder injury. Shedrick scored a game-high 27 points with seven rebounds in the Longhorns’ buzzer-beating win over Louisville on Sunday night.
• Karaban joined Newton on the All-Tournament team, along with Louisville’s Skyy Clark, Indiana’s Malik Reneau, and Abmas.