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UConn makes Big East, program history with rout of Providence

Mar. 10—PROVIDENCE — This is what a championship level response looks like.

Faced with an early 13-point deficit while playing a desperate Big East opponent in front of a hostile Amica Mutual Pavilion crowd on Saturday, No. 2 UConn never blinked.

The Huskies kept their composure and answered with a lethal knockout punch, going on a 40-9 run to end the first half and take complete command in the regular season finale.

Down went upset-minded Providence, 74-60.

"We've been in big spots," coach Dan Hurley said. "This program has achieved a lot and has a lot of confidence and believes."

The Huskies (28-3, 18-2) certainly have convinced the college basketball world that they're deserving of their lofty status. They made history on Saturday, setting the Big East regular season win record and posting the program's best regular season victory mark.

"It means a lot," redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban said. "It's crazy because it just feels like we're adding more and more history and it doesn't even feel real. ... Just to be a part of that is special, because of how hard the Big East is and just how tough it is."

The Huskies also won their 11th Big East game by double digits, three more than last season.

All five UConn starters scored in double figures, with Karaban (16 points) leading the way, followed by Stephon Castle (14), Tristen Newton (12), Donovan Clingan (11) and Cam Spencer (10). Newton added a team best eight rebounds and five assists.

The Huskies are riding some serious momentum heading into this week's Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. As the top seed due to their status as regular season champions, they received a first round bye. They'll play at noon Thursday in the quarterfinals against the winner of Wednesday's first round game between No. 8 Butler and No. 9 Xavier.

It took about five minutes before UConn began to unleash a tsunami on Saturday.

The Friars (19-12, 10-10) delivered the first blow, knocking the Huskies on their heels with a game-opening 15-2 run.

Hurley barked at the officials and picked up a technical foul. PC star Devin Carter went off, scoring 12 of his team's first 15 points.

The Huskies fed off Hurley's fiery emotions and responded.

"I think he got the tech to energize us," Newton said. "We know he's got our back and we know we have to get his. We hate to lose at Providence. That fast start they had was expected. ... We weren't too worried about it. We knew we were going to come out and get the win."

Castle's jumper in the lane started UConn's 40-9 blitz, quieting the once rowdy sold-out crowd.

Everyone got involved.

Reserve Samson Johnson (eight points, six rebounds, two blocks) provided a lift. The Huskies heated up from 3-point range, burying seven before the break.

Castle's 3-pointer handed the Huskies their first lead, 24-21, at the 6:54 mark. Earlier, PC coach Kim English earned a technical foul.

After Spencer buried a 3-pointer to push the edge to 35-24, he stared at the crowd while heading into a timeout.

The Huskies were finally playing like the lethal Huskies.

"They're a good team and well-coached, but we think we're the best team in the country and we have a great scout every game," Castle said. "We believe in what we do and we just stuck with it, and you saw the result. I like how we answered."

Hassan Diarra's buzzer-beating 3-pointer extended the lead to 42-24 at halftime.

"We were so happy," Karaban said of the mood at the break. "We were so energetic. We were finally playing UConn basketball. This is what we came out here to do. Once we did that, we just knew in the locker room that we've just got to keep going."

The Huskies kept their foot on the gas in the second half and remained in complete control, leading by as many as 26. Clingan joined the party, hitting his second career 3-pointer after converting back-to-back dunks.

They neutralized Carter, who had only 10 points after the first four minutes and finished with 24 overall to go with 15 rebounds. Their stingy defense limited the Friars to 35.1 percent overall.

Inside the final minute, Hurley stood near the bench and exchanged heated words with a PC fan. He barked some more as he walked off the court.

"You shouldn't be yelling at me when you're down 20," Hurley said. "You should just wait for the game to be over and walk out. If he wasn't barking at me, I wouldn't have said anything to him."

The Huskies got everything they wanted out of their regular season finale.

"We were thinking history, we were thinking legacy and we were thinking exclamation point on the regular season," Hurley said.

Now their focus can turn to postseason, starting with the Big East tournament.

"It's going to be a blast, man," Hurley said.

g.keefe@theday.com