HOUSTON -- UConn assistant coach Tom Moore embraced guard Tristen Newton in a big hug as he walked toward the bench. Head coach Dan Hurley high-fived his players as they jogged off the floor. The Huskies' fan section was the loudest it had been all night.
It wasn't the end of the game. It wasn't even the end of the first half. There was still 2:55 left before halftime, but the Huskies had opened up a 16-point lead on San Diego State and had all the momentum.
At that point, the final outcome seemed decided, and the second half, for all intents and purposes, looked to be a coronation.
San Diego State had other ideas, cutting the Huskies' lead all the way down to five -- but UConn promptly responded with a knockout punch to close out one of the most dominant runs in NCAA tournament history with a 76-59 win over the Aztecs on Monday.
The Huskies have now won five national championships in the past 24 years, under three different coaches, with Jim Calhoun leading the program in 1999, 2004 and 2011, Kevin Ollie in 2014 and now Hurley. UConn officially reaffirmed its status as one of the premier programs in college basketball.
It also likely ends the discussion surrounding the Huskies' inclusion -- or exclusion -- from the sport's blue blood programs.
"This is number five," former UConn star Emeka Okafor told ESPN after the game. "We have one in every decade for the past four decades. ... I don't know how you would deny a school who has the most championships in the past 25 years. This will definitely end the debate, if there was any."
Program legend Ray Allen agreed.
"Over the years, you hit these ebbs and flows, these peaks and valleys, but they've always managed to right the ship and get back to the top," Allen said. "You just have to always push the narrative. We win here. We're going to continue to win here. ... We don't come here just to exist; we come here to win."
While UConn was reasserting itself toward the top of the sport's pecking order, Adama Sanogo established a legacy of his own. If 2011 was the Kemba Walker run and 2014 was the Shabazz Napier run, 2023 will be remembered for Sanogo.
Sanogo, a junior center, finished Monday's title game with 17 points and 10 rebounds, after averaging 20.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in the first five games of the tournament. He was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
"He's obviously cemented himself into the pantheon of greatest big guys with all the production and back-to-back first-team all-league, and now this, to have the national championship just puts him in a position in one of the most storied programs in college basketball," Hurley said. "He's an all-time great."
In the record books, UConn will be listed among the national champions as a 4-seed. Fifty years from now, the Huskies' run to a title will seem like something of a surprise on paper. In reality, this was arguably the best team in the country for four of the five months of the season.
According to BartTorvik.com, the Huskies were No. 2 in adjusted efficiency margin from the start of the season until Dec. 30. They dropped to No. 30 from Dec. 31 until the end of January, when they lost six of eight games. But since Feb. 1, they've been No. 1 -- No. 2 in February, No. 1 in March and, of course, No. 1 in April.
They played 17 games against teams outside the Big East. They won all 17 games by double figures.
It was all capped by one of the most dominant NCAA tournament runs in history, with UConn winning its six NCAA tournament games by an average of 20.0 points, the fourth-largest average since the tournament expanded in 1985. The Huskies are also the fifth team since 1985 to win all six of their games by double digits.
For the six most important games of the season, nobody laid a glove on them.
"We knew we couldn't go out like suckers again in the first weekend," Hurley said.
Monday night's performance furthered UConn's overwhelming dominance over the past three weeks -- but the opening minutes of the game looked like the Huskies could have a slightly tougher time than the previous five contests.
San Diego State hit its first two 3-pointers of the game, which provided the Aztecs some hope they would be able to keep up with UConn offensively. Through four minutes, San Diego State was getting good shots, going basket for basket with UConn -- and also forced three Newton turnovers at the other end. But after going up 10-6 with 16:32 remaining in the first half, the Aztecs went cold.
They wouldn't make another field goal for more than 11 minutes, when Darrion Trammell hit a jumper. By that point, San Diego State had missed 14 straight shots from the field, and UConn had opened up a double-digit lead.
All season, the Aztecs had been able to impose their will on opponents. UConn didn't let that happen. The Huskies were opportunistic in transition in the first half, with Newton and Andre Jackson consistently pushing the ball up the floor, and Sanogo getting early position on the block against an unsettled San Diego State defense. The Huskies had six steals and forced nine turnovers, turning them into 11 points.
At the other end, UConn's sheer size and length at the rim caused problems for San Diego State all half. Sanogo and Donovan Clingan contested everything around the basket, forcing the Aztecs to miss all five of their layup attempts in the first 20 minutes. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, San Diego State was 1-for-11 on contested paint shots in the first half. In the first five games of the NCAA tournament, the Aztecs shot nearly 50% on contested shots in the paint.
San Diego State came out of halftime with significantly more aggressiveness, especially on the offensive end and on the offensive glass. It prompted Hurley to yell, "Wake up! Wake up!" to his players after one particularly lackadaisical defensive possession.
After San Diego State finally got the deficit to single digits, UConn was under the most pressure it had been in the entire NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, San Diego State was in a familiar position; the Aztecs had overcome deficits of eight points or more in three straight NCAA tournament games entering the title game. The Aztecs got the lead down to as few as five points, but that lasted for only 15 seconds. UConn immediately came down the floor and found Jordan Hawkins off a curl for an open 3-pointer to push the lead back to eight.
"Coach drew something up for me," Hawkins said. "I know he trusted me to make that shot. I had to make it. Easy part. All credit to my teammates for getting me open on those screens and Coach for trusting me."
Jaedon LeDee then missed the front end of a one-and-one, Newton buried two free throws and the Huskies were back up by double digits. A 16-4 run put the game out of reach.
Newton was crucial to UConn pulling away late, making big play after big play in the final minutes, including scores on back-to-back possessions after Hawkins' 3 to provide some breathing room. Newton had some turnover issues in both halves, but he finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
"Before the game started, my coaches told me I need to be aggressive and look to this quarter to win the game," Newton said. "Really, credit to my teammates and the spacing we had and the coaches for believing in me and telling me to be aggressive today."
For Hurley, Monday night's result was the culmination of a five-year process that began in a different conference, with an apathetic fan base and a below-.500 season.
Back in the 2019-20 season, when UConn was still in the American Athletic Conference, the Huskies were mired in another January swoon. They had lost three of four games then went to Villanova and blew a late lead en route to a 61-55 defeat.
Hurley couldn't hide his frustration in that postgame news conference.
"People better get us now. That's all," Hurley said, a quote that will now be entrenched in Storrs, Connecticut, lore. "You better get us now, because it's coming."
Just over three years later, not a single player who played in that Villanova game for UConn is still on the roster. Led by a veteran core of Sanogo, Jackson and Hawkins, with the right transfers and freshmen mixed in, Hurley has taken the Huskies from the American to the Big East, from zero NCAA tournament wins since 2016 to the national championship.
During the recruiting process of building this team, Hurley and his staff liked to put the four previous trophies front and center. But about 18 months ago, Hurley made the decision to take them out of the office.
"[I] said we don't want any trophies in here until we've got our own," he said. "It's just when you're in a place like that, it's a little bit empty until you feel like you can join the club.
"I feel like now we've held up our end of the bargain."