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Another step: Newton, Spencer lead UConn men to Big East Tournament semifinal win over St. John’s, 95-90

NEW YORK – Tristen Newton took over early and Cam Spencer sealed it at the free throw line late to lift the UConn men’s basketball team over 5-seed St. John’s, 95-90, before a sold-out Madison Square Garden Friday night.

“It lived up to everything that people hoped for with this game tonight – the emotions, the intensity, the shot-making… It was just a fun game to be a part of,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “So thrilled to get the win and excited to get to the championship (Saturday night).”

The Big East semifinal win, UConn’s first in four tries since rejoining the league, sets up the program’s first appearance in the tournament final since it won in 2011.

“We’ve been trying all year to win multiple championships and this is one of the stops,” Newton said. “Throughout the (last) two years we’ve been making a lot of history, so tomorrow we’re trying to make more.”

Newton led the way with 25 points, 20 in the first half, and added nine assists and six rebounds, while Spencer shot 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and finished with 20 points, nine assists and four rebounds.

Alex Karaban and Hassan Diarra made four Huskies in double figures with 14 and 10 points, respectively.

UConn is now 11-5 in Big East semifinal games and 17-3 all-time as the 1-seed in the Big East Tournament.

The Huskies made nine of their first 12 shots from the field and quickly wiped an early 7-0 deficit that was fueled by St. John’s Daniss Jenkins, who finished with a game-high 27 points.

Newton gave the Huskies their first lead with 13:43 on the clock and scored 12 points over the next six minutes, fueling a 21-8 scoring run that built a 10-point lead. He jolted the Huskies as he shot 5-for-8 from the field and 3-for-6 from beyond the arc with four rebounds and six assists at halftime.

“He’s a killer,” said Donovan Clingan, who sat with two fouls for most of the first half. “He’s gonna give everything he’s got every single night. It just shows the competitor he is, the gamer he is, and what he’s willing to do to help this team win, that’s why he’s so special.”

The intensity in the sold-out Garden hit an early high around the eight-minute mark after Rick Pitino was awarded a technical for arguing a foul call against Joel Soriano. And, before play resumed, Dan Hurley received his own after alerting officials that a fan had run onto the court and was yelling “expletives” directed at him and the referees.

“I was really just trying to help the officials, they might not have seen it,” Hurley said. “And then I got a technical for pointing out more increasingly aggressive fans. Courtside, he shouldn’t have gone on the court. They were gonna eject him from the game, I went over there to tell the ushers I wanted him to stay – not because I thought he was a good guy, I thought it might be bad luck, karma.”

The last five minutes of the half were a track meet as Clingan, Samson Johnson and Soriano all remained on the bench with two fouls each.

Freshman Jaylin Stewart provided a valuable eight first-half minutes off the bench and had eight points, including a pair of finishes at the rim that gave the Huskies a nine-point lead with less than two minutes to go. St. John’s used a 6-0 run over the final minute to cut its deficit to three, but Newton hit a pair of free throws to make it 52-47 at the break.

The Huskies followed their 63% shooting in the first half by making eight of their first 11 from the field in the second and “Let’s go Huskies” chants echoed throughout the arena as a 10-2 run, capped by a Karaban 3-pointer and a layup from Johnson, pushed the lead to 13 with 13:48 to go.

“As a competitor these are the environments that you want to play in,” Spencer said. “It was a high-level basketball game and we’re working toward something that we’ve worked for all year and the Big East championship is something that we want to go get. This was probably one of the more intense games this year, and rightfully so.”

Spencer and Karaban, who combined to make seven of their 11 3-point attempts for the game, traded shots to stave off a late St. John’s run, but the Johnnies cut UConn’s lead to just six points in the final 35 seconds. They were forced to send Spencer, a 90.5% free throw shooter on the year, to the line.

UConn will meet the winner of Friday night’s semifinal game between 3-seed Marquette and 7-seed Providence in the championship game at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.

“We’re looking for that last jewel,” Hurley said. “The quadruple crown: the regular season Big East, the Final Four, national championship and now the Big East Tournament, that’s what we’re all shooting for and we’re gonna try and deliver.”