UConn’s bid for repeat title has reached its final challenge: Purdue and star Zach Edey

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — UConn has blown through the NCAA Tournament again to reach college basketball’s final night, this time with a chance to claim the first repeat championship in 17 years.

The final test is facing a Purdue team that spent an entire season proving it had recovered from one of the rarest of NCAA Tournament upsets.

The Huskies and Boilermakers are ready for Monday night’s championship game, a matchup set when Purdue ended North Carolina State’s wild March Madness run, followed by UConn pushing past Alabama in Saturday night’s second semifinal.

“It speaks to the credit of what the coaching staff does — they’ve constructed a beautiful team, as we see,” forward Alex Karaban said.

“They made sure the returners, we weren’t complacent, that we wanted to leave a legacy,” Karaban added. “And for the new guys, they’re hungrier than ever. … To be one win away against a really good Purdue team, it’s going to be a battle and we know that. And it’s going to take everything to make sure that we make history.”

In addition to that history on the line, there’s a pairing of marquee big men in Purdue’s 7-foot-4 Zach Edey — the two-time AP national player of the year — and UConn’s 7-2 Donovan Clingan.

UConn entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency by averaging 126.6 points per 100 possessions, while its defense ranked 11th at 94.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. Purdue was ranked fourth offensively (125.0) and 21st defensively (95.9).

The Huskies (36-3) won their fifth championship last season, winning six straight games by at least 13 points each time. And in a been-here-before moment, UConn earned its title-game ticket by beating the Crimson Tide 86-72 for its closest margin thus far in this year’s tournament and its 11th straight tournament win dating back to last year.

One more win would put this year’s No. 1 overall tournament seed in rare company, becoming the first team to win a repeat NCAA title since Florida did it in 2006 and 2007. It would also make the Huskies only the third to do so since UCLA’s run of seven straight championships under John Wooden from 1967-73, the other being Duke in 1991 and 1992 under Mike Krzyzewski.

“It’s a great feeling,” AP All-America guard Tristen Newton said. “Like you said, not many teams can do this. But we feel like we can make history and win the whole thing.”

For Purdue, the story isn’t one of sustained dominance, but a massive turnaround from a humiliating moment that has the Boilermakers within reach of the program’s first title.

Last March, the Boilermakers became only the second No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed by falling to Fairleigh Dickinson. That loss dogged the Boilermakers all year, even as they won the Big Ten regular-season race and spent the entire season looking like a title favorite, with redshirt freshman Cameron Heide noting the team heard chants of “FDU! FDU!” from opposing fans during the year.

Only one other team had faced that challenge: Virginia, which lost to UMBC in 2018. That team went on to win the program’s first NCAA title a year later as a No. 1 seed.

Now Purdue (34-4) can follow that path to redemption, down to winning a first NCAA title.

“It’s everything we’ve worked for, everything we thought about,” guard Fletcher Loyer said. “A lot of late nights, can’t even sleep because you’re thinking about it.

“It’s been tough. But we fought. We’re going to keep fighting. We’ve got 40 more minutes until we’re national champs. We’re going to push everybody as far as we can, and we’re going to play as hard as we can.”

Purdue’s first Final Four since 1980 now includes a trip to the program’s first title game since falling to UCLA in 1969.

“Everybody wants to talk about winning it,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I said, man, you got to get yourself in position before you can win one. It’s like winning a national championship, you can talk all you want, but if you’re not going to play on Monday, you don’t have a chance.

“Obviously we put ourselves in a position to win one. Got to give our guys credit. They’ve been able to battle back. They’ve also been able to handle a lot of adversity.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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