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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    UConn has eyes on big prize

    March 24–ANAHEIM, Calif. — Their season could end tonight in the Sweet 16 and they’d still go home conquering heroes for returning the UConn basketball program to its glory days.

    Just don’t tell the Huskies that.

    They’re not satisfied yet.

    “”We’re not happy just to be here,”” sophomore Alex Oriakhi said Wednesday after practice at the Honda Center. “”We have the same mentality through all these tournament games. We feel we came too far to really turn back. We’re looking to (win) the whole thing just like every other team.””

    Third-seeded UConn’s opponent tonight (7:15) in the NCAA tournament’s West Region semifinal, No. 2 seed San Diego State (34-2), has the same mind-set. The Aztecs aren’t content with advancing to their first Sweet 16.

    Both teams have exceeded expectations this season. Both rosters are loaded with hungry players with little previous NCAA tournament experience. Both teams are riding seven-game winning streaks.

    The Huskies (28-9) are determined to reach the Final Four with a young team while the Aztecs can make a statement by beating a tradition-rich Big East program.

    Tonight’s winner moves on to the Elite Eight on Saturday and will play the winner of top-seeded Duke vs. No. 5 Arizona.

    “”To be at this point, 40 minutes away from a final eight and obviously 80 minutes away from a Final Four, is an exciting thing,”” coach Jim Calhoun said. “”We have had an opportunity to be here on a number of occasions and never take anything for granted. They’re always fun and it’s what you start out working for at the beginning of a basketball season.””

    UConn faces a stiffer challenge than its previous two NCAA tournament games against Bucknell and Cincinnati.

    San Diego State is versatile, experienced (three seniors start), talented and supremely confident from winning a school-record 34 games this season. The Aztecs are balanced offensively and tough defensively, allowing just 58.9 points per game. They’ll also have a sizable home-crowd advantage, playing 94 miles from their campus.

    “”We have a team, and I’ll underline ‘team,’ that has earned its way here,”” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “”We’ve got a wonderful group of young people who have found ways to win more games than anybody in the country except Ohio State and Kansas right now, and that’s saying a mouthful.””

    The Aztecs also have a future NBA lottery selection, according to Calhoun, in sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, who leads the team in scoring (15.6 points per game) and rebounding (10.6). UConn freshman Roscoe Smith will likely draw the defensive assignment.

    “”He can do so many things,”” Calhoun said. “”He’s a heck of a matchup problem.””

    The Huskies have answers, too.

    They’ve had the personnel to adjust to different situations this season. And their physical toughness is likely something the Aztecs haven’t seen this season in the Mountain West Conference.

    And, of course, the Huskies have the best player on the court in All-American Kemba Walker, who’s averaging 25.5 points in two tournament games.

    “”They’ve got to match up with us, too,”” sophomore Jamal Coombs-McDaniel said. “”We’ve got Kemba Walker and they don’t, so I like our chances.””

    San Diego State has experience trying to defend a great player, playing against BYU All-American Jimmer Fredette three times this season. Fredette averaged 32.7 points.

    Tonight’s outcome may come down to the play of the supporting cast of each star — Walker and Leonard.

    Or maybe it will be the team with the greatest desire to extend their season beyond the Sweet 16.

    “”Kemba keeps telling us, ‘We might as well win it all now. We’re here,'”” Coombs-McDaniel said. “”A lot of people are saying that we’re the hottest team in the country. We just come out with the same attitude every game, just to play hard and defend and everything else will take care of itself.””

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