Connecticut pulls away from Alabama in Final Four to move one win from repeat title

Five players scored in double figures and No. 1 Connecticut’s quest for back-to-back national championships continued with an 86-72 win against No. 4 Alabama in the Final Four.

The Huskies will next face No. 1 Purdue on Monday night (9:20 p.m. ET, TBS). The Boilermakers beat No. 11 North Carolina State 63-50 in the first national semifinal behind 20 points from All-America center Zach Edey.

"I think it's just great for college basketball," Connecticut coach Dan Hurley said. "Us and Purdue have clearly been the two best teams in the country the last two years. It's just great for college basketball to get the two big dogs playing on Monday."

The win was the program’s 11th in a row in tournament play for the defending national champions, all by double digits. The closest margin of victory during this span is 13 points against Miami (Fla.) in last season’s Final Four. Amazingly, UConn has trailed for a total of 55 seconds in the second half during this two-year run.

Alabama gave UConn trouble in transition and from 3-point range, making 8 of 11 attempts from deep, to trail 44-40 at halftime. At the same time, the Huskies went only 5 of 15 from beyond the arc but overcame that inaccuracy by converting 11 of 14 shots from the line.

Connecticut players celebrate a play against Alabama during the Final Four of the 2024 NCAA men's tournament at State Farm Stadium.
Connecticut players celebrate a play against Alabama during the Final Four of the 2024 NCAA men's tournament at State Farm Stadium.

The two teams traded 7-0 runs early in the second half and were tied 56-56 with 12:41 left after a short jumper by Alabama forward Grant Nelson. UConn took over from there, stepping on the gas with a 15-5 run to lead 71-61 with five minutes left.

The Crimson Tide’s stroke from deep disappeared in the second half. The Tide went 3 of 12 on 3-pointers while UConn made 5 of 10 attempts in the final 20 minutes.

The exclamation points came from a pair of dunks by sophomore center Donovan Clingan to make it an 80-68 game with 1:49 to go.

"It feels good, but the job's not done yet," Clingan said.

After shutting down Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. in the Elite Eight, freshman guard Stephon Castle flashed the growing offensive game that makes him a potential lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft. He made 7 of 13 from the field for a team-high 21 points.

"They made the decision to play him with one of their frontcourt players," Hurley said. "They played him real soft. He really made them pay for that. He was awesome today and he was awesome defensively. He's been a winning freshman the whole year."

After winning MVP honors in the East Region, Clingan added 18 points with five rebounds and four blocks. Cam Spencer and Alex Karaban had 14 points and Tristan Newton had 12 points.

Mark Sears led the Crimson Tide with 24 points. Grant Nelson had 19 points and 15 rebounds.

With the win, the Huskies move one step closer to a place in college basketball history. Beating Purdue would make UConn the eighth program to win back-to-back championships and the first since Florida in 2006-07.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Connecticut handles Alabama at Final Four to move one win from repeat