UConn beats Purdue and cruises to sixth NCAA championship

April 9, 2024, 12:39 AM

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On paper, the plan wasn't working.

Zach Edey had 14 points, the reigning Wooden Award winner was talking trash to Dan Hurley and the UConn bench, and Purdue led the  Huskies with 8 minutes left in the first half.

UConn had elected to guard Edey one-on-one with Donovan Clingan, essentially allowing him to score at will, while focusing most of their defensive attention on the Boilermakers' other players. Edey was dominating UConn's projected lottery pick center like nobody else had all season.

But UConn, as it has done consistently over the past two years, stayed the course and trusted its game plan. Edey couldn't beat the Huskies by himself, and his teammates weren't doing much to help.

The floodgates opened for UConn in the second half, and the Huskies ultimately beat Purdue 75-60, winning their second straight men's national championship and becoming the first team to go back-to-back since  Florida in 2006 and 2007.

"What could you say?" UConn coach Dan Hurley said. "We won -- by a lot again."

And after one of the most dominant NCAA tournament runs in history last year, when UConn beat its six opponents by 20.0 points per game, it was even more unbeatable this year. The Huskies' average scoring margin in their six 2024 NCAA tournament wins was 23.3 points.

Once again, all six wins came by double digits -- making that 12 straight NCAA tournament wins by at least 10 points dating back to last season.

"I think it's up there in terms of the greatest two-year runs that a program maybe has ever had," Hurley said. "I just think it's the best two-year run I think in a very, very long time just because of everything we lost from last year's team. To lose that much, and again, to do what we did again, it's got to be as impressive a two-year run as a program's had since prior to whoever did it before  Duke. To me, it's more impressive than what Florida and Duke did because they brought back their entire teams. We lost some major players."

Purdue was expected to be UConn's most difficult test in two years. The Boilermakers were arguably the second-best team in the country all season, boasted the best player in the college basketball and were a connected group that also happened to be the second-best 3-point shooting team in the nation.

The numbers supported the Huskies' decision to focus most of their defensive effort on Purdue's complementary players. In Purdue's wins this season, Edey averaged 24.9 points. In Purdue's losses, Edey averaged 25.0 points. The 7-foot-4 center was going to get his production regardless.

As a result, the much-anticipated matchup between Edey and Clingan was one-sided in the early minutes of the game. Edey short-armed his first shot over Clingan, hitting the front rim. For the next 11 minutes, though, he did whatever he wanted against UConn's big man. He scored over Clingan, absorbed contact to finish through Clingan, and even caught a lob and dunked against Clingan.

Purdue was getting Edey the ball in good position, and he was scoring consistently.

After he scored his 13th and 14th points with 8:07 left in the first half to give Purdue a 2-point lead, he looked over at the UConn bench and exchanged a few words with Hurley as the two teams jogged back to their respective huddles at the media timeout. 

"I got a couple looks," joked Huskies assistant coach Luke Murray, who was assigned to scout and plan for Purdue in preparation for Monday's game.

"Their offensive efficiency numbers really don't fluctuate that much depending on whether he's really good or great or excellent. Where it really starts to change is when  [Fletcher] Loyer, [Braden] Smith and [Lance] Jones and [Mason] Gillis and those guys make 3s. ... We felt if Zach had a great game and we did a great job of holding those other guys in check, that we'd have a really good shot to win."

After Edey's opening salvo, though, he struggled for a long stretch, and Purdue couldn't keep up with the Huskies. He made just one field goal in the next 14:28 as UConn turned a 2-point deficit into a 9-point lead.

UConn tasked freshman Stephon Castle, who had previously helped shut down  Northwestern's  Boo Buie and  Illinois' Terrence Shannon Jr. earlier in the tournament, with pressuring Purdue point guard Smith, while veteran guards Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer looked to keep Purdue's perimeter players from getting clean looks.

The Boilermakers attempted just two 3-pointers in the first half and seven in the game, with the lone made 3 coming when Smith had to put up a desperation jumper with the shot clock winding down in the first half.

"We watched the film," Newton said. "They get their 3-pointers off, people going down there and helping on Edey. They did a great job game planning and made sure it was a focus that we didn't leave the 3-point line and let Edey do his damage. He only shoots 2s. He doesn't shoot 3s. If he makes 15 2s like he did today, that's 30. Where are the rest of the points going to come from?"

"The coaches made a point that we'd be really locked in if we could control their 3-point attempts," Spencer added. "I think holding them to seven, we were just really locked in on not letting those other guys get involved in the game."

Purdue briefly threatened UConn early in the second half, when Camden Heide had an aggressive put-back dunk to cut the lead to seven and when Edey scored four straight points to cut the lead to nine. But the Huskies constantly countered with key shots when it mattered and led by double-digits for nearly 15 minutes in the second half.

They became the third team to win multiple title games by 15-plus points and just the second team to do it in consecutive years, joining  UCLA's three-year run from 1967 to 1969, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

"To win [by] double digits these past two years, it's just a tribute to our culture here," forward Alex Karaban said. "We're never satisfied. We're always hungry. We're always going to go on runs and we're always going to continue to play hard to where we're going to break the other team. No team practices like us, no team goes as hard as us. It showed in the second half."

Newton won the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player award after finishing with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists -- the second time he has been UConn's best player in the championship game. In the 2023 title game win over San Diego State, Newton went for 19 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists.

Castle continued his stellar postseason, finishing with 15 points and 5 rebounds after tallying 21 points and 5 rebounds against Alabama in the semifinals.

Edey had 37 points for the most points scored in a losing effort in the national championship game.

While last year's fifth championship seemingly settled the debate around UConn's blue-blood status, going back-to-back for the Huskies' sixth title in 26 years puts the program in truly rarified air. Only six other schools have produced back-to-back men's basketball champions, and UConn is now tied for third all time with six championships.

"We're going to try to replicate it again. We're going to maintain a championship culture," Hurley said.

"I don't think that we're going anywhere."