Thursday, May 30, 2024

Stephon Castle’s breakout Final Four performance powers UConn, sets up epic NCAA title showdown vs. Purdue

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Stephon Castle’s eyes got big on the opening possession Saturday night when he realized how Alabama intended to guard him.

The UConn freshman’s defender remained rooted in the paint, sagging eight to 10 feet off him and daring him to shoot.

Alabama’s daring strategy backfired when it coaxed newfound assertiveness out of a physically gifted but sometimes tentative future lottery pick. The long, athletic Castle delivered the best performance of his career, exploding for 21 points to power UConn to a hard-earned 86-72 victory over the feisty Crimson Tide in the second of Saturday’s two Final Four games.

Castle’s offensive barrage started in the opening three minutes when the 27% shooter from behind the arc drilled a pair of 3-pointers that Alabama’s Grant Nelson didn’t bother to contest. Castle also backed down small guard Mark Sears and overpowered him for a layup. Before long, he was driving confidently to the rim, making tough floaters and back-cutting for alley-oop dunks.

“It was kind of a disrespect on their end just to guard that far back,” Castle said. “I took advantage of it early. I saw the ball go in early. I thought it started a great night for me.”

The breakout performance from Castle helped ensure that this will be the rare year when the two best teams in college basketball meet in the national title game. On Monday night, it will be UConn versus Purdue, Kling Cong versus Big Maple.

Either UConn or Purdue have been atop the AP poll for more than half this season. As other contenders have fallen off, they’ve remained on a collision course, the Huskies winning their five NCAA tournament games by an average of 25 points and the Boilermakers by a mere 19.6.

The dream title game is at last set. Either UConn will become college basketball’s first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007 or Purdue will complete the ultimate redemption arc one year after the humiliation of losing to Fairleigh Dickinson in a 16-versus-1 first-round upset.

Expect Purdue to defend Castle differently than Alabama did. This is a five-star freshman who would’ve regularly produced 21-point scoring nights had he chosen to play for practically any other program besides UConn.

Castle says he came to UConn knowing that he would have to defer at times to returning standouts Donovan Clingan, Alex Karaban and Tristen Newton. Without complaint, he has embraced the role of complementary scorer and perimeter stopper because that’s what UConn has needed from him to win.

“I never won anything in high school,” Castle said. “I never won no national championship or no state championship. Coming here, I wanted to play for a coach that has won before and that will teach me how to win. Coming here was a no-brainer.”

At a time when college basketball is skewing older and more transfer-heavy, Castle’s breakout performance on a Final Four stage served as a reminder that elite freshmen still have value too. Castle, 19, is the only teenager in the starting five for any of the Final Four teams and he was arguably the best player in either game in Glendale on Saturday.

UConn freshman Stephon Castle powered the Huskies into the national title game with the best game of his young career on Saturday in the Final Four against Alabama. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

UConn freshman Stephon Castle powered the Huskies into the national title game with the best game of his young career on Saturday in the Final Four against Alabama. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Castle kept UConn in striking distance as Alabama was raining down threes in the first half and then helped the Huskies pull away midway through the second half. He might have blown past his career high of 21 had he not sat the final 6:35 after picking up his fourth foul with UConn leading by eight.

“Steph is a great player, ultra-talented,” UConn guard Hassan Diarra said. “If you’re not going to guard him, he’s going to go for 20. He has so many tools to his game. If you’re going to leave him like that, he’s going to go off.”

Entering Saturday’s game, Castle was already considered a projected NBA lottery pick, a high-upside prospect who is a jump shot away from potential stardom. The Alabama game validated Castle as that level of prospect and perhaps opened some eyes of how good he can be.

Nine days ago, Alabama head coach Nate Oats employed a similar strategy against North Carolina in the Sweet 16, leaving the Tar Heels’ non-shooters free and goading them into taking uncomfortable shots.

That approach worked once. It didn’t work twice.

“My shooting numbers haven’t been the best, so I understand it,” Castle said. “But I work super hard. To see those shots fall in early, it was a good feeling.”

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