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No. 1 UConn blows out No. 4 Marquette in a key Big East battle

Feb. 17—HARTFORD — Top-ranked UConn lived up to its championship level standard on Saturday.

When that happens, the Huskies are nearly impossible to beat.

Just ask No. 4 Marquette.

UConn turned a much-anticipated Big East showdown into a beat down, scoring an impressive 81-53 victory at the XL Center. The Huskies stretched their winning streak to 14 in a row.

"If you play elite offense, you play elite defense and you're a great rebounding team, and you play harder than your opponent, that doesn't give them a lot of places to go...," coach Dan Hurley said. "What's dangerous about how we feel as a program right now, we take the court and we don't fear losing."

The impressive 28-point win will surely be the talk of the college basketball world. It is the largest margin of victory in a conference game between two top five teams in the Associated Press poll.

But the Huskies didn't treat the win as a big deal. Hurley will be back holding his team to his demanding standard on Monday.

"Monday, we'll watch the film and look at the bad and look at the good," sophomore Donovan Clingan said. "As soon as we step foot on the court for practice, we won't hear a single word about Marquette.

"Obviously, we played great today. But if we're not doing well in practice the day after, he's going to let us know. He's going to be pushing us. He doesn't want us to get complacent. He always tells us you can't get tired of winning. You've just got to go out there and give it everything you've got. You've just got to be hungry."

UConn played like it was starving for a win on Saturday.

The first-place Huskies surged in front for good midway through the first half and led by as many as 29 points in the dominating performance. They cooled off a Marquette team that came in riding an eight-game winning streak.

"Heck of a game by UConn," Marquette coach Shaka Smart said. "They've been playing terrific and I thought today they played even better than they've been playing."

UConn (24-2, 14-1) moved closer to securing their first Big East regular season title in 18 years. With five regular season games to go, they hold a three and a half game lead over Marquette (19-6, 10-4), the defending league champions.

"The ultimate goal is to win the regular season," Clingan said. "I just feel like today we just went in there with the same mentality that we do every game."

From the start, the Huskies fed off the energy of a raucous sold-out crowd. They held the Golden Eagles to a season low for points and won the battle of the boards, 45-27. Marquette converted just 36.8% from the field, and UConn shot 46%.

"The building was awesome," Hurley said. "Obviously, the game went as well as it could go for us and as poorly it could go for them."

As has been UConn's trademark this season, it relied on a balanced attack.

Clingan led the way with 17 points and 10 rebounds while backcourt partners Tristen Newton (15 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) and Cam Spencer (14 points, six rebounds) also sparked the attack.

Reserve Hassan Diarra was a huge factor at both ends of the court, finishing with a season-high tying 14 points to go with six assists, five rebounds and three steals.

"This is the best game he's played," Hurley said.

Diarra, Newton and freshman Stephon Castle took turns defending star guard Tyler Kolek, who had just seven points on 2 for 11 shooting.

"It was a team effort," Diarra said. "We gave him different coverages and different looks. The coaching staff did a great job with their schemes and it worked."

UConn drained the drama out of the game in the first half.

After a tight, fiercely competitive opening first 10 minutes, the Huskies began to pull away. They started making all the hustle plays and executing their offense at a high level.

Leading 29-24, they bolted on a game-changing 13-0 run. Newton buried a 3-pointer to start things off and capped off the burst with a layup for a 42-24 edge.

UConn kept its foot on the gas in the second half and stretched the lead.

Diarra buried a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock. Then Newton grabbed an offensive rebound and fed a wide open Clingan who soared down the lane for an emphatic dunk.

The XL Center crowd roared its approval as Marquette called a timeout trailing 51-30.

The Huskies cruised to the final line from there.

Give a lot of credit to UConn's stingy defense for its winning streak. The Huskies have held 10 straight opponents to under 68 points.

UConn and Marquette will meet again on March 6 in Milwaukee. The two programs also could run into each other in the Big East tournament. The Golden Eagles are the defending champs.

The Huskies aren't looking that far down the road. They're focused on living up to their championship standard on a daily basis.

"All we can control is taking a championship approach to the next basketball game," Hurley said. "It would have been really easy for us to come out here and play real tight if the messaging with the team was like, 'Hey, guys, this one basically gives us a three game lead on Marquette if we get it.'

"So we just talked about a championship level approach, mentality, execution. Just a mindset."

News and notes

The NCAA tournament selection committee announced its projected March Madness bracket Saturday, giving UConn the overall No. 2 seed and top seed status in the East Region. Purdue earned the overall No. 1 spot, Houston at No. 3 overall and Arizona at No. 4. All four were unanimous selections by the selection committee.

North Carolina (No. 5 overall), Iowa State (No. 11 overall) and Wisconsin (No. 16 overall) rounded out the other top four seeds in the East Region.

.... ESPN College Gameday is coming to Storrs on Feb. 24, the day that UConn hosts Villanova at 8 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion.

g.keefe@theday.com