The best and worst moments from Final Four Saturday

Final tournament recap of the year. Can’t hold anything back.

(5) Florida Atlantic 72, (9) San Diego State 71

In the five days leading up to this year’s Final Four, there was plenty of talk about lack of national interest, potential poor play on the court in Houston, and the likelihood of “record low TV ratings.”

That talk wasn’t spawned by the presence of four-time national champion Connecticut. It also wasn’t the result of the ACC’s Miami making its first appearance in a national semifinal.

The talk was a direct response to San Diego State claiming the South Region title and Florida Atlantic coming out of the East.

The teams from Conference USA and the Mountain West were fun to talk about and follow for the tournament’s first two or three rounds, but they weren’t supposed to be here. Not on the sport’s biggest stage. Not standing just two victories away from the sport’s ultimate prize.

Well, there was a forever March moment on Saturday night, and it didn’t happen in the “showcase” game between the Huskies and Hurricanes.

A game of runs eventually saw Florida Atlantic, owners of the best record in men’s college basketball at 35-3 going into the night, appearing to be in fairly firm command of things about midway through the second half. The free-flowing Owls dropped 40 points on SDSU in the first half — becoming just the second team this season to have a 40-point half against the Aztecs this season — and then opened up a 14-point lead six minutes into the second half.

Then, San Diego State did what San Diego State does.

The Aztecs tightened things up significantly on defense and began to chip away on the other end of the floor. Matt Bradley continued to build on what was easily his best game of the tournament so far, Jaedon LeDee began to get the better of his frontcourt foes around the rim, the Mountain West champions began to dominate the offensive glass, and the SDSU defense that had been gashed over the game’s first 26 minutes held FAU to just six points over the final 7:44.

All this built towards one of the more memorable Final Four finishes of all-time.

After a short jumper from Lee pulled San Diego State to within one, the Aztecs successfully defended a running layup attempt from FAU’s Johnell Davis to give themselves a shot at locking down a reservation for championship Monday.

Enter Lamont Butler: March April immortal.

Butler’s shot gave San Diego State its first lead of the second half.

The visual of the FAU win probability tracker is probably going to haunt the Owls for, well, forever.

With the Owls’ soul-crushing loss, teams seeded 9th or worse moved to 0-9 all-time in the Final Four.

On the flip side, with the win, San Diego State became the first team in NCAA tournament history to win both its Elite Eight game and Final Four game by exactly one point. The Aztecs are also just the third team ever to win back-to-back tournament games by a single point, joining Loyola Chicago in 2018 and St. Joseph’s in 1981.

SDSU now sits just one victory away from becoming both the first Mountain West team and the first 5-seed ever to win a national championship.

UConn

Another round, another double-digit romp for the team that has easily been this tournament’s most impressive from the first round through the national semifinals.

The latest steamrolling — a 72-59 triumph over Miami — was so workmanlike that easily excitable UConn head coach Danny Hurley couldn’t even find it in himself to do some celebratory locker room screaming afterwards.

UConn scored the game’s first nine points and never really looked back. The Huskies led by as many as 20 in the second half, and while Miami respectably kept clawing to stay within shouting distance, the game never really reached a point where it felt like it was in doubt.

Adama Sanogo was unstoppable in the paint and Jordan Hawkins gave an admirable effort while playing through what he suspects was food poisoning. But what really set this performance apart for UConn was what the Huskies were able to accomplish as a defensive unit.

Facing one of the most explosive offensive teams in all of college basketball, Connecticut took a Miami team that had been averaging 81.3 ppg in the NCAA tournament and held them to 59. The Hurricanes were just 8-of-23 on shots at the rim, a testament to just how intimidating Sanogo and company were all night long.

Connecticut will head into the national title game still without a single loss this season to a non-Big East team. The Huskies are now 16-0 against non-conference opponents, and they’ve won all 16 of those games by double digits.

It’ll take a 26-point win over San Diego State Monday night for UConn to break the 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats’ record for the largest all-time point differential for a national champion. While that seems more unlikely than not, there’s no question that the Huskies have had one of the more thoroughly dominant three-week runs in recent tournament history.

Of course none of that means anything if they don’t finish it out the right way.

Miami

I mean, someone has to go here.

Miami seemed to have the horses to run with Connecticut, and it just did not happen Saturday night.

“We put together a game plan that I thought gave us a good chance to be successful,” Hurricane head coach Jim Larranaga said after the game. “Unfortunately, I think our guys were so worked up, so psyched up, that they couldn’t calm down. The mental and emotional side of the game — where mentally, everybody’s on the same page and emotionally you’re calm — we weren’t. Not mentally, not emotionally.”

After setting the box score on fire in last weekend’s Elite Eight win over Texas, not one of Miami’s five starters shot 50 percent from the field or better against UConn. The Hurricanes could never get it going from the outside, and inside, they had no answer for Husky big man Adama Sanogo.

There was a lot of talk heading into this weekend that if anyone had a chance to keep UConn from claiming its fifth national title, it was Miami. On Saturday, the Hurricanes clearly appeared to be a tier or 12 below the pre-Final Four favorites.

1. The shot

Lamar Butler’s game-winner was the first true game-winning NCAA tournament buzzer-beater that we’ve been treated to since Jalen Suggs beat the horn from just inside halfcourt on Final Four Saturday in 2021.

You can’t show it to me enough. Give me all the angles, all the reactions, and all the calls.

It’s also worth mentioning that the shot happened inside NRG Stadium, home to perhaps the greatest Final Four buzzer-beater of all-time in 2016.

Kris Jenkins was aware of this fact.

Greatest sporting event in the world.

2. Lamont Butler’s redemption arc

Tournament success wasn’t always a thing for this San Diego State team.

Back in November, the Aztecs went just 1-2 at the Maui Invitational, earning them fourth-place honors at the eight-team event.

In their final game of the tournament, SDSU appeared to have a win well-in-hand against a then-No. 8 Arkansas team. But a slew of mistakes down the stretch resulted in a painful 78-74 overtime loss to the Razorbacks.

Paramount among the mistakes for the Aztecs were an inadvertent foul and a turnover, both committed by junior guard Lamont Butler, that turned a 4-point SDSU lead into a tie game in just six seconds.

“I was devastated after the game,” Butler said days later. “I felt like the loss was on me, personally, because of those plays. But coaches, teammates, everyone, they’ve been very uplifting, telling me to keep going, that you’ll be in that position again, that there’s a long season ahead.”

Man … there are prescient quotes, and then there are prescient quotes.

While Butler is the king of “America’s Finest City” at the moment, he was on the receiving end of some pretty nasty social media comments during the season’s opening month.

“I feel that’s what all comes with it, being on a good team at the top level,” Butler said. “You have to enjoy the hate and enjoy the love. You just have to keep going. I can’t just let six seconds define who I am. I feel like I’ve been playing well the whole season. I have to keep my head down, keep working, stay humble and win more games.

“Just be the best version of myself at all times.”

Every season for every team and every player is a beautiful journey loaded with life lessons and teachable moments. Few more so than the ride Butler has been on over the last five months.

3. Jordan Hawkins

Jordan Hawkins thinks it was some bad calamari on Thursday night that led to him battling a bout of food poisoning in the days and hours before the most important basketball game of his life.

Hawkins, UConn’s leading scorer in the postseason during its run up to the Final Four, did not practice with the Huskies on Friday and and only partially participated in the team’s shootaround earlier in the day on Saturday. Despite that, he started, played 26 minutes and scored 13 points in Connecticut’s Final Four win over Miami.

“I’ve been here nine months now and I have yet to see him miss a practice,” UConn center Donovan Clingan said. “So for him to miss practice the day before a Final Four game, I knew something was wrong. I know he’s such a dog and cares so much about winning. I had no worries that he was going to be here today.”

Hawkins said after the game that he may never eat calamari again, and that he should be 100 percent for Monday night’s national championship game.

“I feel great. No reason to be concerned on Monday.”

1. Nijel Pack’s shoe issues

One of the major storylines going into this weekend was Miami being one of the first defining teams of the NIL era.

While some programs took a wait and see approach when players first became able to legally make money off of their name, image and likeness, the Hurricanes dove into those waters in the most public of fashions.

At the forefront of the matter was Nijel Pack, who last April transferred from Kansas State to Miami after inking a two-year, $800,000 deal with LifeWallet, a company run by millionaire Miami booster John Ruiz. While all of this was above board, it was still a bit jarring for amateur purists and fans of the new progressive era alike to see this deal and this type of figure just thrown out there so brazenly for all to gawk at.

Fast forward to Saturday night as Pack, who had hit 13 total threes and scored at least 12 points in all four of Miami’s NCAA tournament wins, was forced to miss an extended portion of the second half because of a sneaker malfunction. The problem? He didn’t have an extra pair of shoes on-hand.

The irony here is not hard to parse through.

Once that young hero — who looked like me running to get a freshly-requested stuffed animal so my 3-year-old will finally go to sleep — returned with a new pair of kicks, Pack was finally able to return to the floor with Miami trailing by 12. He finished the game with eight points on just 3-of-10 shooting from the field.

2. High knees ref

Only because he kept me distracted for a solid 15 percent of UConn-Miami.

That’s Jeffrey Anderson, and he does this on a nightly basis during the college basketball season.

On the sport’s biggest stage, our guy wasn’t about to throw away his shot.

3. Dude blocking Steve Fisher

Legendary head coach Steve Fisher, who won a national championship with Michigan in 1989, practically built the San Diego State men’s basketball program that we know today.

As the head coach of the Aztecs from 1999-2017, Fisher led SDSU to eight NCAA tournament appearances, 10 Mountain West Conference championships, and a pair of trips to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. Not bad for a program that had appeared in March Madness just three times before his arrival.

So if you’re in front of the man who built San Diego State basketball at the most important San Diego State basketball game in history, maybe you should, I don’t know, sit the f—k down.

Move this man to the upper level for Monday night.

Adama Sanogo, Connecticut

Miami had zero answer inside for Sanogo, who became just the second player in UConn history to score 20 points or more in an NCAA Tournament game while shooting 80 percent or better from the field. Sanogo scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting and added 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks for good measure. With the performance, Sanogo became the first Husky ever to score at least 100 points and grab at least 40 rebounds in a single NCAA tournament.

Alijah Martin, Florida Atlantic

While everyone else on FAU was struggling during San Diego State’s frantic second half comeback, Martin almost single-handedly willed the Owls into the championship game. He finished with 26 points and seven rebounds.

Matt Bradley, San Diego State

After a disastrous first four games of the tournament, San Diego State’s leading scorer finally broke out. Bradley knocked down 4-of-8 three-pointers on his way to a team-high 21 points.

Jaedon LeDee, San Diego State

LeDee played just 15 minutes on Saturday, but his performance inside helped turn the tide of the game late in the second half. He scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds, and his short jumper in the final minute helped pave the way for Lamont Butler’s heroics.

Tristen Newton, Connecticut

The Senior guard from El Paso ran the show effectively and efficiently on Saturday, finishing with eight assists, seven points and three rebounds.

Andre Jackson Jr., Connecticut

The man just glides.

1. The shot

Florida Atlantic v San Diego State

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

2. The other side of a March moment

Florida Atlantic v San Diego State

Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

3. Once again, a unit in sync

Miami v Connecticut

Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

1. “They are fearless. I ran out of plays, so I decided not to take a timeout. I said, ‘if we get the rebound, let’s get downhill and send all three bigs to the rim.’ Lamont got downhill and he made a play. I’m proud of him.” —San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher

2. “A lot of people say we don’t have a traditional point guard. I don’t know what a ‘traditional point guard’ is supposed to do, I mean, the whole year I averaged five assists per game. I don’t know what a ‘true point guard’ is supposed to do, maybe get more assists? So I got eight tonight.” —UConn point guard Tristen Newton

3. “It just shows that a group of like-minded people have come together to try to do something special and bigger than themselves. I say it all the time: In this era, it’s hard to find great teammates, even when things aren’t going well for them individually. And we have a locker room full of them. That’s why we had the year we had. They work incredibly hard. They care about people. And it was never about them as individuals. It was about us as a collective unit.” —Florida Atlantic head coach Dusty May

Let’s regroup and gear up for one last ride Monday night.

This post was originally published on this site