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UConn men pull away from San Diego State, advance to Elite Eight, 82-52

Mar. 29—BOSTON — Coming off winning a national championship, Dan Hurley looked for signs of complacency in his UConn basketball team during the season.

If the UConn coach hasn't already, Hurley can call off the search.

The Huskies are playing like a team that hasn't won anything.

For an NCAA tournament record tying ninth straight time, UConn won a March Madness game by double figures on Thursday, beating No. 5 seed San Diego State, 82-52, in an East Region Sweet Sixteen game before a pro-Husky crowd at TD Garden.

Top-seeded UConn's competitive edge remains as sharp as ever.

"It starts with coach Hurley and his mentality and message to us every day," redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban. "We can never be complacent or it's really going to show. It's going to show in the locker room, who's not hungry and who's not really wanting to continue to want more.

"We all want more. I know the veteran guys want to experience what it's like to win a national championship again and we want the new guys to experience that, too. There's always extra motivation and extra hunger for us. We know how talented this group is and we don't want the season to end."

The Huskies (34-3) broke open a semi-tight game by outscoring the Aztecs by 21 points in the second half on the way to securing the program's second straight regional final and 13th time overall. They'll play No. 3 Illinois at 6:09 p.m. Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four. Illinois beat No. 2 Iowa State 72-69.

They're the first reigning national champion to reach the regional final stage since Florida in 2007. The Gators also are the last team to win back to back titles.

Once again, UConn's demolition crew showed up for duty once, leading to a third straight tournament win by at least 17 points.

The Huskies are driven by the fact they're trying to become the first team in program history to win back-to-back national titles.

"We just have people that are desperate to win more," said coach Dan Hurley when asked about the lopsided victories. "We have winners. We have 'we' guys. ... These guys right now are leaving a legacy in a place that's hard to leave a legacy."

A stingy defense limited the Aztecs (26-11) to 36.2% from the field. UConn dominated the boards by a whopping 50-29 margin.

The Huskies had a far superior offensive arsenal.

Playing in his first NCAA tournament, veteran Cam Spencer scored 18 points while backcourt partner Tristen Newton had 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists and freshman Stephon Castle added 16 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. Reserve Hassan Diarra had 10 points.

"This team is ultra-talented," Diarra said. "We have so many weapons, so many ways we can beat teams. We know what to expect. It's automatic at this point. We've been doing this all year."

The Huskies never really felt comfortable in the rematch between the 2023 national championship game teams until seizing control early in the second half. They tightened up their defense and extended their lead.

Castle, a gifted freshman, took over during an impressive stretch early in the second half, muscling inside for baskets. Spencer fed an open Castle for a dunk for UConn's largest lead thus far at 51-35.

The Huskies built and then stretched the double digit lead despite Donovan Clingan watching from the bench with three fouls.

They kept their foot on the gas and cruised home from there.

"The group, we have killer instincts," Hurley said. "We play every possession with great desperation. We have NBA-level players that are incredibly well-prepared by Luke Murray and Kimani Young, two of the best assistant coaches in the country.

"Obviously, we're very comfortable in tournament play. We're hard to prepare for."

At first, UConn didn't look bulletproof, which Hurley often calls his team.

The Huskies were in an unfamiliar spot early on, trailing for the first time in the tournament.

San Diego State All-American Jaedon LeDee, a tough matchup for Clingan, buried the game's opening jump shot and then again at 10-9. LeDee came out firing, scoring 11 of his team's first 16 points. But he finished with just 18 points.

The Huskies eventually surged in front for good when Karaban, who's from Southborough, Mass., hit a deep 3-pointer for a 13-10 edge.

They started hot, making 11 of their first 16 from the field and leading by as many as 11. But they turned cold, sinking just four of their next 22 attempts.

The Aztecs closed the gap to four on two occasions.

But Spencer fueled a first-half ending 7-2 run and scored 16 points in the first 20 minutes. He curled around a screen and buried a 3-pointer to hand UConn a 40-31 edge at the break.

That's as close as the Aztecs would get.

UConn hit warp drive and took off, recording its seventh straight Sweet Sixteen victory.

"We did what we had to do," Diarra said. "We did a great job, especially in the second half, of guarding and rebounding the ball."

The Huskies equaled the 1998-99 team (34-2) record for most wins in a season in program history.

With 17 in Thursday's win, they set a regular season program mark for assists held by last year's team. They have 689.

g.keefe@theday.com