Punchless New Mexico Is KO’d Early by Connecticut
The Connecticut Huskies are headed to Phoenix, but their sights are set on St. Petersburg--site of this year’s Final Four.
The top-seeded Huskies scored the first 17 points and cruised into the round of 16 with a 78-56 victory over No. 9-seeded New Mexico in the West Regional on Saturday.
Connecticut, seeking its first trip to the Final Four in Coach Jim Calhoun’s 13 seasons, held New Mexico (25-9) scoreless for the first 7:12, with the Lobos missing seven shots and committing seven turnovers in their first 14 possessions.
After that, Connecticut (30-2) seemed content to trade baskets the rest of the way with New Mexico, which lost four consecutive second-round games in the NCAA tournament. Connecticut reached the round of 16 for fifth time in six years and will play No. 5-seeded Iowa (20-9) in Phoenix on Thursday.
“We came out terrifically, with a good deal of energy,” Calhoun said.
Back-to-back three-point baskets by forward Richard Hamilton and guard Khalid El-Amin, both of whom finished with 21 points, set the stage for the rout.
“The run at the start dictated the game,” New Mexico Coach Dave Bliss said. “We started in a zone [defense] but it wasn’t what caused us problems. It was our inability to score. If we make our shots, we have a chance to be a competitive team.”
New Mexico’s only semblance of that--a 9-0 run--cut Connecticut’s lead to 20-11 with 8:55 left in the first half, but that would be as close as the Lobos would get in a game in which they shot 26 %.
Senior center Kenny Thomas, New Mexico’s leading scorer and rebounder, had only one point--a career low-- and missed six shots. He did not sink a field goal for the first time in 123 games. He had 11 rebounds.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” Thomas said. “Just because you don’t make the shot doesn’t mean you’re frustrated. I couldn’t make a shot. We couldn’t make a shot.”
Connecticut’s early blitz not only broke Lobos’ will, but also seemed to take some of the fire out of the Huskies. New Mexico still had faint hopes when it trailed 37-22 at halftime.
That did not please Calhoun, who has been battling a virus this week and wasn’t on the bench for Connecticut’s first-round victory over Texas San Antonio.
“I was really upset about the last 10 minute of the first half because we played so well, got Thomas in foul trouble and [Kevin] Henry, who is a great 3-point shooter in foul trouble,” Calhoun said. “I didn’t think we took as much advantage as we should.”
But Connecticut, which Bliss noted a day earlier can “pillage and plunder” at will, returned to form with a 13-0 run to start the second half. El-Amin had seven of those points, Hamilton the other six.
“We came out of the locker room and played with a lot more spirit and that’s when we put them away,” Calhoun said.