One Shining Moment: Huskies Roll to 2nd Straight Title

Written by: Ben Hodgins

Sports Illustrated Images

March Madness undoubtedly stands as one of the premier sporting events of the calendar year. The NCAA tournament this year was no exception, delivering memorable moments, surprising upsets, and stellar performances that captured the attention of basketball fans worldwide. As the tournament unfolded, the four top seeds, UConn (Defending Champions, Big East), Purdue (Big 10), Houston (Big 12), and North Carolina (ACC), emerged as favourites to make a deep run.

The opening round showcased thrilling matchups, with standout performances and unexpected outcomes. Among the highlights were Dayton’s narrow victory over Nevada and 12-seeded Grand Canyon’s stunning upset of Saint Mary’s. Notably, all six teams seeded #1 or #2 advanced to the round of 32. UConn led the charge with a dominant 39-point victory over Stetson. However, the first round also saw the emergence of underdogs like 11-seed NC State, who surprised many with their win over Texas Tech, and 14-seeded Oakland, who shocked the basketball world by defeating Kentucky, ending John Calipari’s reign with the Wildcats. In the first round, NC State Senior forward DJ Burns emerged as a standout player, captivating fans with his unusual build at 6 foot 9, 275 pounds. His presence on the court contributed significantly to NC State’s unexpected victories. Meanwhile, the Oakland Golden Grizzlies had stellar performances from Horizon League Player of the Year Trey Townsend and America’s new favourite three-point specialist, Jack Gohlke. Townsend recorded 17 points, while Gohlke lit up from beyond the arc, hitting 10 three-pointers and finishing the game with 32 points.

(Matt Freed / Associated Press)

In the round of 32, while there were no significant upsets, fans were treated to several thrilling matchups. A double-overtime game unfolded as 3-seeded Creighton defeated the Oregon Ducks in an 86-73 victory. Notable games included North Carolina’s resilience in fighting off Michigan State’s first-half run to secure an 85-69 win and 6-seeded Clemson’s upset victory over 3-seeded Baylor with a score of 72-64. There was also a matchup between two standout players from the first round, Jack Gohlke and DJ Burns, as NC State clashed with Oakland in a hard-fought game that went into overtime. Ultimately, the Wolfpack emerged victorious with a 79-73 win.

In the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds, the tournament’s intensity ramped up with quality matchups nationwide. In the East Region, UConn showcased their dominance by easily taking down San Diego State, securing an 82-52 victory. Meanwhile, Illinois, led by Terrance Shannon Jr., overcame a tough challenge from Iowa State in a closely contested game, advancing to the Elite 8 with a 72-69 win. Out West, two major upsets unfolded, with 4 seeded Alabama stunning the top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in a thrilling 89-87 victory. Also in the West Region, Arizona was upset by Clemson, with the Tigers winning 77-72. In the South region, one of the tournament’s standout games saw Duke squaring off against Houston. The teams remained neck and neck throughout the first half, with Duke holding a slim 2-point lead at halftime. However, Houston’s hopes faded as star guard and Defensive Player of The Year winner Jamal Shead exited the game with a sprained ankle. Seizing the opportunity, Duke, led by Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach, toughed out a gritty 54-51 victory. In another South Region matchup, NC State’s unexpected run continued as they defeated 2-seeded Marquette with a score of 67-58. Finally, in the West Region, Purdue showcased their strength by beating 5-seeded Gonzaga with an 80-68 victory, while Tennessee overcame Creighton with an 82-75 win to secure their spot in the Elite 8.

In the Elite 8, Connecticut continued their dominant run with a commanding 77-52 victory over Illinois, securing their ticket to the Final Four for the second consecutive year. Coming out of halftime, UConn flexed their firepower, going on a 30-0 scoring run. The Illini had no answer for Huskies star centre Donovan Clingan, who finished with a 22-point double-double and dominated the paint with his presence.

The West Regional Final had Alabama proving it is not just a football school, defeating the Clemson Tigers 89-82. Senior guard Mark Sears led the charge with 23 points, sending the Crimson Tide to their first-ever Final Four appearance in school history.

In the South, NC State squared off against Duke in a highly anticipated matchup with a Final Four berth on the line. Despite trailing at halftime, the Wolfpack roared back in the second half, fueled by DJ Burns’ 29 points to lead NC State to victory. Duke struggled to contain Burns, especially after Kyle Filipwoski fouled out in the late stages of the game.

A memorable game took place in the Midwest Regional Final as Purdue clashed with Tennessee in a back-and-forth battle. Canadian standout Zach Edey and Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht showcased their NBA-caliber talent, delivering star performances. Edey had a tournament-best 40 points and 16 rebounds, leading Purdue to a hard-fought 72-66 victory over the Tennessee Volunteers. Dalton Knecht had an impressive 37 points in the loss. The win marked a remarkable turnaround for Purdue, who bounced back from a first-round exit to 16-seeded FDU in last year’s tournament. Edey and Knecht are both expected to hear their names called in June at the 2024 NBA draft.

The Final Four made its way to Glendale, Arizona, featuring matchups between NC State and Purdue, and UConn against Alabama. In the first game, Purdue strategically let 7-foot-4 Zach Edey guard DJ Burns, limiting him to just 8 points. DJ Horne stepped up for the Wolfpack, leading their scoring with 20 points. For Purdue, Zach Edey delivered a dominant performance, tallying a double-double with 20 points and leading the Boilermakers to a 63-50 victory.

In the other semifinal, the UConn Huskies, who had steamrolled every opponent in the tournament, faced off against Alabama. UConn took care of business, cruising to an 86-72 win over the Crimson Tide. Stephon Castle led the Huskies with 21 points, while Donovan Clingan had 18 points to secure UConn’s spot in the championship game.

With the stage set for the National Championship, anticipation was high to see two number 1 seeds square off. The game started pretty even, with UConn holding a slim 36-30 lead at halftime. However, Purdue struggled to contain UConn’s offensive weapons, led by Tristen Newton and Stephon Castle, who combined for 35 points. Ultimately, UConn was victorious with a convincing 75-60 victory, securing back-to-back NCAA championships and their sixth title overall. This victory marked UConn as the first back-to-back champion since the 06-07 Florida Gators.

Following the game, Tristen Newton was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. With their sixth national title, UConn passed Duke and tied North Carolina in the record books. Early in the week, speculation arose regarding the possibility of UConn coach Dan Hurley departing for the vacant Kentucky job. However, Hurley has opted to remain in Storrs and is committed to building towards a potential three-peat for the Huskies.

As the 2023-24 NCAA basketball season draws close, anticipation builds for the upcoming year, filled with coaching changes, promising recruits, and the unpredictable transfer portal. One of the biggest announcements came with John Calipari’s decision to leave Kentucky for Arkansas after a remarkable 15-year tenure at Kentucky. Calipari’s career with the Wildcats finished with four Final Four appearances and a National Title in 2012. Calipari’s move follows Kentucky’s second first-round exit in the NCAA tournament in just three years. Replacing Calipari is BYU Head Coach Mark Pope, a former captain of the 1996 National Champion team at Kentucky.

Turning to recruiting, many electrifying freshmen prospects are set to make their mark on college basketball. Notably, Cooper Flagg is unanimously ranked as the #1 recruit in America and has committed to Duke. Flagg has been considered the best prospect since Anthony Davis and ranks higher than fellow Duke players Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett during their high school days. With Flagg leading the way, Duke has the #1 ranked recruiting class, accompanied by standouts like Khaman Maluach, ranked #3 overall by 247 Sports, and Isaiah Evans at #12. With the return of Tyrese Proctor and Caleb Foster to lead the backcourt, the Blue Devils are likely to be the preseason #1 team for the 2024-25 season. As the offseason progresses, the college basketball landscape will be shaped by NBA draft announcements and players’ decisions regarding their return to school or entry into the transfer portal. Currently, the favourites to win the championship in 2025, according to Fanduel, include Duke (+1100), Kansas (+1200), Connecticut (+1300), along with Alabama, North Carolina, and Houston (all +1600). With these developments, the stage is set for another great NCAA basketball season, filled with excitement and anticipation.

SLAM Magazine

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