ALBANY, N.Y. — With a dominant performance from its best player in the second half, UConn took the next step toward returning to its championship past.
Adama Sanogo scored 10 of his season-high 28 points in the first five minutes of the second half as the fourth-seeded Huskies seized control and beat Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels 87-63 Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
UConn (26-8) advanced to play fifth-seeded Saint Mary’s on Sunday in the West Region after losing in the first round under coach Dan Hurley the last two seasons.
“We grabbed him at halftime because he was pressing in the first half,” Hurley said of Sanogo. “He was hesitant. I think he carried the weight of getting us out of the first round, I think, a little bit too much in the first half.”
Iona (27-8) had its 14-game winning streak snapped as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion didn’t have the depth to keep up with one of the Big East’s best for 40 minutes.
“The played a great second half,” Pitino said. “They physically dominated us at the five spot. And the first half was just about as well as we played all year.”
Walter Clayton Jr. led the Gaels with 14 points.
Now the question is: What’s next for the Gaels’ Hall of Fame coach?
“I really don’t have an answer to it, to be honest with you,” Pitino said when asked if this was his last game at Iona. “I have no idea if it is or isn’t, because I’ve focused everything on this game.”
Pitino was coaching in his 24th NCAA Tournament and maybe his last with Iona, the tiny Catholic school in New Rochelle, New York, that brought him back to the college game even with an NCAA investigation hanging over him.
The 70-year-old seems to be in line for another high-profile job, with St. John’s as the apparent front-runner to land the two-time national champion.
UConn trailed by a two at the half, but came out of the break clicking. A four-point play by Jordan Hawkins immediately gave the Huskies the lead.
“I believe that play gave them all the momentum and got them going,” Iona’s Berrick JeanLouis said.
Then Sanogo went to work inside.
The 6-foot-9, 245-pound junior had a dunk, a hook, a couple of layups and two free throws, scoring of 10 of the Huskies’ next 13 points as they grabbed a 54-43 lead.
“Definitely, coming into this game, there was a lot of pressure,” Sanogo said.
The Gaels never really threatened again. Sanogo’s turnaround jumper from the baseline with 6:49 left made it 71-57 and the Huskies cruised into the second round for the first time since 2016.
Hawkins added 13 points, all in the second half, and Sanogo capped his 13-for-17 shooting performance with a long-range jumper to beat the shot clock with 3:05 left to up the lead to 21. He also had 13 rebounds.
Donovan Clingan, UConn’s 7-2 backup center, added 12 points and nine rebounds.
“We’ve won the most games in the Big East the last three years overall,” Hurley said. “We were able to transfer that into a first round game of the NCAA Tournament, which I’m excited about.”
Pitino came in with a 54-20 NCAA record, but without a tournament victory since 2017, his last season at Louisville before he was fired amid the second NCAA scandal of his tenure.
Pitino was exonerated — which he reminded everyone about at his postgame news conference — when the final ruling was handed down just before the start of this season, leading to speculation bigger schools would come calling when Iona’s season ended.
For a half, it looked like that might be at least another few days.
The pace was brisk and the play was sharp from the start, a first-round matchup that felt a little like a regional final.
Pitino was dapper and active on the sideline in his black suit and silver tie. And the Gaels were fearless in the first half.
They pressured ballhandlers and played at a pace that had to feel familiar to Louisville and Kentucky fans who rooted for Pitino’s best teams.
Neither team led by more than four in the first 20 minutes and Iona’s 6-3 Daniss Jenkins seemed to send a message in the final minute when he came swooping in for an emphatic block on Clingan to keep the Gaels in front, 39-37 at the break.
UConn, however, had the final response.
Iona: The Gaels fell to 1-16 all-time in the tournament, with their only victory coming in 1980 under the late Jim Valvano against Holy Cross.
UConn: Hurley, in his fifth season at UConn, talked openly about the pressure to advance this week after going one-and-done in the tournament the last two years.
Pitino thinks the ceiling is high for the Huskies.
“They’ve got all the metrics to win a national championship,” Pitino said.
Iona: Maybe a new coach?
UConn: The Huskies won their only meeting against Saint Mary’s in 2006.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
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