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UConn proud of Big East’s basketball pedigree even as football money upends college sports

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BOSTON (AP) — Alabama and the rest of the football fans in the Southeastern Conference are about to find out what Big East basketball is all about.

The Crimson Tide, who have won 18 NCAA football championships but have never been to a men’s basketball Final Four, will meet top-seeded UConn in the national semifinals on April 6. The Huskies have a chance to win back-to-back NCAA titles — which would make it six in 13 years for the Big East, the league that takes pride in its basketball pedigree even as football money upended the rest of college sports.

“The Big East is a monster,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said after the Huskies steamrolled Illinois 77-52 on Saturday night — a March Madness -record 10th straight double-digit victory for the Huskies.

“Iron sharpens iron,” Hurley said. “The league prepares us for these nonconference games. … You’re going against beasts and monsters every night in the Big East, and the Big East prepared us for teams like Illinois.”

UConn has beaten three Big Ten teams this season, topping Indiana in the regular season and Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies did not play an SEC team this year but went 3-0 against them last season, including an 82-67 victory over Alabama on Nov. 22, 2022.

“We’re going to be tough to beat,” said Hurley, whose team against Illinois to break open a game that was tied 23-all in the final two minutes of the first half. “It was a special level of basketball that we were playing.”

Donovan Clingan had 22 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots for UConn, which cruised to its fifth national title last year and seems inexorably headed for a sixth.

Their NCAA Tournament wins this year have come by 39, 17, 30 and 25 points.

Actor Bill Murray, whose son, Luke, is a Huskies assistant coach, watched the game from a courtside seat and took video of the postgame celebration, where his grandchildren were showered with confetti. was also part of a heavily partisan crowd the Huskies (35-3) called “ ” for the East Region games that were played about 90 miles from campus.

UConn, which won the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden and advanced to the Sweet 16 in Brooklyn, will now get on an airplane for the first time in almost a month and head to the Final Four outside of Phoenix. Alabama advanced with an 89-82 victory over Clemson later Saturday night.

The Huskies, who set a school record for victories in a season, are the first defending champs to make it back to the national semifinals since Florida won back-to-back titles in 2006 and ’07.

ճ󲹳’s still a possibility for UConn, too.

“It’s not about really trying to win No. 6 or go back to back,” Hurley said. “It’s this time of year, you love your team and you can’t imagine what it would be like to not get up the next day and still coach your team. It’s what you learn when you win the way we’ve won: It really is about the work, the journey, the process.”

The Fighting Illini (29-9) managed just four points in the first half when Clingan was in the game, with the 7-foot-2 Connecticut native recording nine points, six rebounds and three blocks before the break. Overall, they were 0 for 19 on shots challenged by Clingan.

“We were getting the same shots we’ve always gotten, and Clingan erased a few of them,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “He’s good. I mean, doesn’t everybody have him projected in the (NBA) lottery or close to it? He does a great job of protecting the rim.”

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AP March Madness bracket: /hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: /hub/march-madness