HOUSTON — We have our finalists for the 2023 national championship game. San Diego State and UConn will play for a national title.
After a surprising set of 64 games in the men’s 2023 NCAA tournament, surely things would quiet down and the national semifinal would go exactly as expected, right?
The Aztecs would inflict their will with their highly regarded defense. The vast venue and Final Four excitement might make both teams miss shots, but none really happened. The surprises kept coming, all the way down to the final second against the Florida Atlantic Owls, defeating them 71-70.
UConn, meanwhile, acted like things were business as usual, leading wire-to-wire for a 13-point win over Miami.
As we ready for Monday’s matchup between the Aztecs and the Huskies, ESPN’s team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi discuss all the key points from Saturday’s contests at NRG Stadium in Houston.
How UConn beat Miami
UConn center Adama Sanogo hits a pair of 3-pointers early
Adama Sanogo is left alone for a pair of 3-pointers and he drains both of them.
What was key in UConn/Miami’s win?
In Houston’s Sweet 16 loss to Miami, Kelvin Sampson said Norchad Omier was a bigger challenge for his team than any 7-footer they’d faced all season. Miami’s ability to play its versatile lineup and challenge bigger teams is the result of Omier’s presence. But Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan helped limit his impact. I think that mattered most. Omier finally met a couple of players who could handle him in the paint. Omier missed five of his first eight shots and played with eight fouls for the most of the second half. With 3:57 to play in the second half, UConn had a 44% offensive rebounding rate. Those second-chance opportunities were in part attached to Omier not being able to act as the physical presence he has been for Miami all year. UConn capitalized off those opportunities with 16 second-chance points that contributed to the 14-point lead it held in the final 3:35 of the matchup. — Medcalf
What surprised you most about this game?
Many things that could go wrong for UConn did go wrong. Jordan Hawkins was under the weather and Andre Jackson Jr. picked up two fouls in the opening minutes. None of that made any difference against a Miami team that had just hung 51 points in 20 minutes on Texas, a higher seed than the Huskies. Dan Hurley’s team was resilient, Sanogo is playing the best basketball of his already very illustrious career and Donovan Clingan continues to crush the spirit of opponents who think they’re catching a break because Sanogo’s on the bench. The final result was what we’re used to seeing from UConn in this bracket, but the way the Huskies got it done was surprising — and very impressive. — Gasaway
Who was your most outstanding player of this game?
UConn got enormous contributions across the board, but none greater than Sanogo’s. From the unexpected three-pointers to the timely blocks to the sublime driving layup from the wing, the Huskies’ big man displayed a versatility that has him halfway to a Final Four most outstanding player award. All told, his double-double (21 points, 10 rebounds, 9-for-11 from the floor) was a stat line Miami simply could not match. Throw in four points and a half-dozen more rebounds from Clingan, and UConn’s edge in the middle was a death blow to the Hurricanes. — Lunardi
What will be the legacy of Miami?
Miami’s legacy will not be the same for everyone. Some will see the Hurricanes as a team that was fueled by the name, image and likeness (NIL) deals attached to Nijel Pack, who transferred from Kansas State, and other Miami players. But that’s unfair. First, the NIL contributions are all legal. And this Miami team has been elite all year. These Hurricanes shared the ACC crown with Virginia. And they entered Saturday’s game with a 13-2 record in their last 15 games. The Canes represent what’s possible in college basketball. Last year, they were in the Elite Eight and this year, they were a Final Four team. If anything, their run — and this entire Final Four — suggests that the traditional powers might be losing their grip on the sport because of the growing parity. But Miami should be remembered as an excellent team that made history with the first Final Four run in school history. — Medcalf
• Jeff Borzello: UConn cruises past Miami to return to national title game
How San Diego State beat Florida Atlantic
What was the key to San Diego State winning this game?
Down the stretch, San Diego State was able to get back to what worked in the first four games of the NCAA tournament (and all season, really). It had only three offensive rebounds in the first half, but grabbed nine in the second half — including six in a 59-second stretch toward the end. After having some success going at Nathan Mensah and SDSU’s interior players in the first half, FAU started struggling to finish at the rim. The Owls finished just 5-for-14 on layups. And the Aztecs’ defense came back to life as a whole. They have been a dominant defensive unit this season, but FAU had its way in the first half, scoring 40 points in the first 20 minutes. But the Owls made just eight shots after halftime, including just two in the final 7:40. San Diego State’s switchability at every spot on the floor began to cause issues for FAU, after giving the Owls too much space early. — Borzello
What surprised you most about this game?
Everything, literally everything, surprised me from start to finish. FAU acted like it had been here before right from the opening tip. After the first 40 minutes of the Final Four, Alijah Martin is your most outstanding player (so far): 26 points with 19 coming in the second half. And even that wasn’t enough on a night when San Diego State began attacking the offensive glass after halftime. (Speaking of surprises, the Aztecs got many of those second chances off of their own missed free throws.) Matt Bradley started fast and finished with 21 points, just enough to put Lamont Butler in position for his iconic game-winner. Yes, Lamont Butler. Just one more surprise in a 2023 bracket filled with them. — Gasaway
Where does this semifinal rank among semifinals for you?
Game notwithstanding, this was an important national semifinal for the sport. That both teams played at a high level reinforces the notion of non-power conferences belonging at this level. Throw in a legendary finish and we’ll remember both FAU and San Diego State for a long, long time. The first true buzzer-beater of a great tournament could not have been more dramatic. — Lunardi
What’s next for Florida Atlantic?
FAU isn’t going anywhere. Provided no players enter the portal or make ill-advised NBA draft decisions, Dusty May should bring back all but one player from this year’s team. Michael Forrest is the lone senior on the roster, with all five starters still having eligibility. May has already made it clear he’s not going anywhere, agreeing to a long-term extension that was announced earlier in the week. If he can retain Johnell Davis, Martin, Vladislav Goldin, Nick Boyd and Bryan Greenlee — plus a few key bench players — FAU will once again be a top-25 team. Thirty-five wins and a second straight Final Four appearance will take some doing, but the Owls will have the continuity and talent to make another run. — Borzello
• Pete Thamel: Butler’s buzzer-beater sends San Diego State to final
• Myron Medcalf: FAU players ‘not dwelling’ on defeat in Final Four
HERE WE GO.
THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IS SET 🔥 #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/QLU70V7iIC
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) April 2, 2023
National championship line
Opened at Caesars Sportsbook
No. 4 UConn -7, vs No. 5 San Diego State
MoneyLine: UConn -320, SDST +250