Coach Dan Hurley leads UConn to its 1st Sweet 16 since 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The nightmares might come a little less frequently now for Connecticut coach Dan Hurley, a level of relief for the Huskies head coach. He had been close to this stage of the NCAA tournament before as a head coach -- years ago at Rhode Island.

He didn't get there then, losing to Oregon after being up late. So Sunday offered a bit of comfort and redemption. For him. For Connecticut too.

The questions no longer need to be asked around his program. Not after a 70-55 handling of Saint Mary's propelled Connecticut into its first Sweet 16 since 2014.

"Maybe I won't have as many nightmares about that because that [Oregon] game, that haunts me," Hurley said. "It has haunted me. And now, I'll think about it less."

His Huskies gave him much happier things to think about on Sunday. When Hurley pulled his starters with 1:47 left, up 70-52, to a standing ovation from the UConn fans who made the trip, they knew they'd play again. That they'd be heading to Las Vegas to play No. 8 Arkansas on Thursday night.

The last time Connecticut reached this deep in the NCAA tournament, it entered as a No. 7 seed in 2014. It ended with the program's fourth national championship. The players on this team barely remember it.

"I was probably watching 'Power Rangers' or something," sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins said. "I was a kid. So yeah, it's amazing to bring this program back to where it was."

Hawkins remembers little about that team. About Sunday, he'll recall a lot. His back-to-back 3-pointers with a little under 7 minutes left -- the last of which left him walking back down the court shaking with excitement -- gave Connecticut a 62-47 lead.

Minutes earlier, the Huskies had started to break away. A 3-pointer from Alex Karaban gave Connecticut a 46-40 lead, and for the first time all night, MVP Arena felt more like the XL Center in Hartford than an arena in upstate New York.

Karaban felt a switch once his shot went down -- the redshirt freshman's only basket of the night. For Connecticut, it meant more.

"That shot really swayed to our momentum," Karaban said. "... I think that was like the first blow. You felt it in the huddle too. You felt the enthusiasm go up. You felt the confidence go up, everything go up as a team.

"It just felt like we weren't going to lose at that point."

From there, Connecticut (27-8) looked like the same team that put away Iona in the second half on Friday in the first round. Indeed, it felt like UConn would have enough to close out Saint Mary's (27-8).

Karaban, a redshirt freshman, was 13 years old the last time Connecticut reached this point of the tournament. He watched the national semifinal, but he wasn't allowed to stay up for the national championship and woke up at 6 the next morning to see the highlights.

"You think of this program as stone-cold dominant, and now that it hasn't been there in close to 10 years, you're really doing something special right now," Karaban said. "We're adding ourselves to history at UConn, and we're far from done."

Over the two-game trouncing of Gaels both east (Iona) and west (Saint Mary's), it became clear Connecticut would be a very tough out. The Huskies won both contests in similar ways, their depth wearing down the opponent and their star closing things out.

Forward Adama Sanogo -- who on Friday became the third Connecticut player ever to have at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in a NCAA tournament game after his 28-point, 13-rebound performance, joining Ray Allen (1996) and DeAndre Daniels (2014) -- continued his mastery on Sunday.

Sanogo registered 24 points and eight rebounds in a difficult matchup with Saint Mary's big man Mitchell Saxen. Connecticut didn't care. The Huskies went to Sanogo again and again -- from the first basket of the game on.

From the inside presence of Sanogo to the guard play from Hawkins (12 points) and Tristen Newton (13 points, five assists), there wasn't much Saint Mary's could do once Connecticut got rolling. No Gaels scored in double figures, and they didn't make a field goal after a Saxen layup with 7:04 left. There's a reason Iona coach Rick Pitino said after his team lost to UConn on Friday that the Huskies "have all the metrics to win a national championship."

With 36.2 seconds left, Hurley walked down his bench giving all his players high-fives. When the horn sounded, he raised an arm to the UConn fans in attendance, urging them to cheer. He raised both his fists and arms to do it again.

Then he walked behind his bench and embraced his wife, Andrea, for a long time before walking past the rest of his family and friends -- actor Bill Murray, the dad of UConn assistant Luke Murray, was a couple of rows above -- on his way to the locker room.

"My wife is not from this world. She's a normal human being," Hurley said. "She did not get raised in a home like me where your dad is a coach and your brother's a basketball maniac like my dad and me.

"This is hard on her at times, the failures in last year's tournament and the excruciating losses; it was just great to see her so happy."

He needed to celebrate with his family, as well. He is a Hurley. He's part of an iconic American basketball family -- the first member to reach the Sweet 16 as a head coach.

"I'm so proud of him," said Hurley's father, Bob, a Hall of Fame high school coach in New Jersey. "As a dad, it's just so much fun to come to these things and be a part of it. The energy and the feelings around this group as they've been moving along, getting more dangerous each game they play.

"It's been a joy for us to come."

The joy can come after the haunting is done. After the pain and the failure that had been there before -- for Hurley. And for his players, with the past two seasons culminating in first-round NCAA tournament exits. There's some relief now -- some freedom too.

"Playing at UConn, it's just you deal with a lot more pressure and criticism and like immediate meltdowns on social when you lose," Dan Hurley said. "I think in the first and even second round of tournaments, it's more of a burden to play at UConn than it is an advantage.

"Especially in that first-round game, just being able to get that first one, I thought the team just was a lot looser today. Obviously now you get to the Sweet 16, you can really just kind of go out and just let it rip."