ALBANY — Tune out the noise.
Ignore the external pressure.
Perform as you have to get to this point.
That was Dan Hurley’s message to his Connecticut players throughout the week.
It’s fair to say it was received loud and clear.
The Huskies played loose and they performed up to expectations in a pair of commanding victories that sent them to the school’s first Sweet 16 in nine years.
Two days after manhandling No. 13 Iona, fourth-seeded UConn took care of No. 5 Saint Mary’s, 70-55, in a West Region second round game at Husky-heavy MVP Arena.
With the win, UConn joined Xavier, the third seed in the Midwest Region, as the second Big East team to survive the first four days of the tournament.
It was eerily similar to the win over Iona: A solid first half followed by an overwhelming second half. Connecticut was dominant at both ends of the floor after halftime, and cruised to victory, earning a Sweet 16 showdown with No. 8 Arkansas in Las Vegas on Thursday.
For Hurley, it is his first trip to the second weekend in his fifth NCAA Tournament, and washes away losing each of the previous two years in the first round as the higher seed.
Adama Sanogo controlled the paint, scoring 24 and grabbing eight rebounds, Tristen Newton added 13 points and five assists, and Jordan Hawkins had all 12 of his points after halftime.
Playing in his hometown, Andre Jackson Jr. was a two-way force, notching six rebounds and seven assists.
Over the final 16:06, UConn (26-8) outscored Saint Mary’s by 16, and shot a sizzling 65 percent from the field in the second half. Aidan Mahaney led the Gaels (27-8) with nine points.
Sanogo was the best player on the floor in the first half, producing 10 points, six rebounds and hitting five of his first six shots.
He keyed the Huskies’ run after falling into an early eight-point hole, and Joey Calcaterra and Newton sank 3-pointers in the final 52 seconds of the half to give Connecticut the lead at the break.
With 4:52 left in the first half, Saint Mary’s wing Alex Ducas hurt his back, and didn’t return. He had been playing well, having scored eight points on 3 of 4 shooting.
Hurley’s team pushed its lead to as many as 11 early in the second half on the strength of a 14-2 run that included a pair of baskets from Sanogo and Jackson, and an Alex Karaban 3-pointer.
Adding to the Gaels’ issues, center Mitchell Saxen picked up his fourth foul with 12:51 left and his team in the midst of a lengthy scoring drought.
Saint Mary’s never recovered, unable to slow down the Connecticut onslaught. The Huskies won convincingly twice this weekend, looking the part of a legitimate Final Four contender.