Stephon Castle, UConn beat Alabama to return to men's basketball tourney finale

UConn freshman Stephon Castle scored a 21 points to lead the Huskies past Alabama on Saturday in Glendale, Ariz. Photo by UConn Athletics

April 6 (UPI) -- A 21-point effort from a freshman -- paired with the mettle of his reigning national champion teammates -- helped guide UConn past Alabama and back into the men's basketball tournament finale Saturday in Glendale, Ariz.

First-year guard Stephon Castle poured in 21 points in the No. 1 overall seed's 86-72 triumph over the No. 4 Crimson Tide at State Farm Arena.

"They made the decision to play him with one of their front-court players," Huskies coach Dan Hurley said, when asked about Castle, on the TBS broadcast.

"They played him real soft and he made them pay for that."

The Huskies totaled 20 assists and just four turnovers, compared to nine assists and eight giveaways from their foes. They held a 37-29 edge in rebounding and outshot the Tide 50% to 44.8%. They also held a 38-26 advantage in points in the paint and did not allow a single basket off a fast break.

They will meet fellow top seed Purdue in the 2024 NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament finale Monday in Glendale.

"It feels good, but the jobs not done yet," said Huskies sophomore center Donovan Clingan, who scored 18 points.

Saturday's Final Four meeting featured a tight first half, with each offense bustling for tempo control, resulting in seven lead changes through the first 20 minutes. The Huskies then outscored their foes 42-32 in the second half, including 31-18 over the final 13 minutes.

The reigning national champions used an inside-out style game to facilitate high-percentage opportunities, while the Tide stayed in contention by shooting 72.7% from 3-point range in the first half. The Huskies held a 44-40 lead at halftime.

They extended that edge to eight to start the final act. The Tide and Huskies then exchanged 7-0 runs, clawing for momentum. Senior forward Grant Nelson tied the score for the Tide, for the sixth time, with 12:44 remaining.

The Huskies again answered with an 8-0 surge. The Tide punched back several times, but the Huskies used smothering defense and second-chance offense to stay ahead. The Tide cut the lead to six on several occasions, but could not get closer down the stretch.

Six Huskies players were in double figures in points. Senior guard Cam Spencer and sophomore forward Alex Karaban scored 14 points apiece. Senior guard Tristen Newton chipped in 12 points and nine assists for the Huskies.

Senior guard Mark Sears scored a game-high 24 points for the Crimson Tide. Nelson recorded 19 points and 15 rebounds in the loss.

The Huskies will face the Boilermakers in the 2024 NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament finale at 9:20 p.m. EDT Monday in Glendale. The game will air on TBS.