HOUSTON -- Jim Larranaga looked down and put his hands on his head.
Miami's Wooga Poplar had just turned the ball over out of bounds, UConn was getting the ball back with a 15-point lead early in the second half, and the veteran head coach knew his team was losing its grip on the game.
It was a familiar sight for those following UConn's dominant run through the NCAA tournament, a run that continued Saturday night as the 4-seed Huskies cruised to a 72-59 win over 5-seed Miami.
UConn advances to face San Diego State in the national championship game Monday.
"There's a lot of teams that want to play Monday," junior center Adama Sanogo said. "It means a lot to us. It means everything we work for. The work has paid off, and still going and keep working and be able to go Monday night."
The Huskies fell just shy of becoming the first team to win its first five NCAA tournament games by at least 15 points, but became the sixth team ever to win them by double digits, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Four of the previous five teams to do it won the title game.
"When we're playing harder than the other team, which is our calling card -- going like plus-nine on the glass, playing elite defense and having a lot of answers on offense -- there's nowhere where we're weak as a team," coach Dan Hurley said. "We're able to kind of body blow our opponent."
UConn scored the first nine points of the game, with Jordan Hawkins making a 3-pointer 14 seconds in and Sanogo following with two 3s of his own. Hawkins dispelled any notion of being ineffective after his bout with a stomach bug the past two days, while Sanogo had made just 17 3s in the first 37 games of the season. Two very good signs for the Huskies.
Hawkins was quiet the rest of the first half, but Sanogo didn't slow down. The UConn big man finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and the Huskies improved to 20-0 in Sanogo's career when he scores at least 20 points.
Miami did come back to tie the score at 19 on a Nijel Pack 3-pointer with 8:20 left in the first half, but the Hurricanes would never get level with UConn again. The Huskies finished the half on an 18-6 run, capped by an Alex Karaban buzzer 3-pointer to go into the break with a 13-point lead.
UConn pushed the margin to 20 early in the second half, and Miami would only get it down to single digits for 35 seconds the rest of the game. The Hurricanes constantly flirted with a comeback, scoring back-to-back baskets or getting consecutive stops, but the Huskies never let them get closer than touching distance.
When the Huskies needed to make a play to change the momentum or end a run, they came through, as they have during all of the NCAA tournament. But it wasn't the elite UConn offense, ranked No. 3 in the country at KenPom.com after Saturday, that was the focus against Miami. It was the other side of the ball.
The Huskies held the Hurricanes, who average nearly 80 points per game and have the fifth-most efficient offense in the country, to their fewest points of the season, both in the first half and for the game. Miami shot just 31% inside the arc and didn't make a basket for the last six minutes of the game.
It was the second game in a row that UConn's defense was the catalyst for the win. In the Elite Eight, the Huskies faced Gonzaga, which has the nation's most efficient and highest-scoring offense. The Zags proceeded to score a season-low 54 points and had their fewest points per possession since December 2009, according to KenPom's database.
"We feel like we're the best defense in the nation," guard Tristen Newton said. "We feel like people don't play teams like us every year. The Big East is a real physical league, and coming from those conferences, I don't feel like they have teams that play defense like the Big East does."
Junior Andre Jackson added: "We got guys who know the scheme, what the other team is trying to do because the coaches do such a great job of preparing us. We also got guys that can guard the ball one-on-one. ... We all understand the concepts. I think that's what allows us to be able to stop teams. Knowing what they're trying to get and limit that and trying to defensive rebound the ball as well as possible."
"We feel like we're the best defense in the nation. We feel like people don't play teams like us every year. The Big East is a real physical league, and coming from those conferences, I don't feel like they have teams that play defense like the Big East does." UConn guard Tristen Newton
When UConn had its 2-6 stretch in January, defense was the primary culprit. The Huskies allowed one point per possession once in the first 13 games of the season and four times in the final 13 games of the campaign. During the middle 11 games? Opponents hit that mark eight times.
"We proved we have talent, we proved we have guys that can score the ball, facilitate the ball and all the pretty stuff," Jackson said. "It was all about getting our identity on the defensive side of the ball and getting a grittiness to us. Once we were able to get that grittiness, it definitely became harder to stop. Playing in the Big East, super tough conference, really physical guys, older guys that have been at it for a while. Every opponent you see is nothing new."
Miami's Final Four run was partially predicated on its ability to get second-chance points on the offensive glass and the Hurricanes' guards getting downhill and either finishing at the rim or kicking it out to open shooters for 3s. But UConn made life difficult for Miami's stars. Pack was just 3-for-10 from the field, Norchad Omier was held to eight points and nothing came easy for Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller.
The Hurricanes were just 8-for-23 on layups, with Sanogo and Donovan Clingan contesting or altering attempt after attempt. Omier and Miller did well on the offensive glass in the first half, but UConn didn't allow a second-chance basket in the second half until there was 8:02 remaining.
"They really did a good job of sending two at you whenever we would drive. That bothered us again," Miller said. "Uncharacteristic of us, but all credit to them. They came ready to play. They were the better team tonight."
Hurley credited assistant coaches Kimani Young and Luke Murray with having his players ready for each of the past two games at the defensive end of the floor.
"We're a great defensive team. That swoon in January had a lot to do with us losing our defensive identity," Hurley said. "We pressured them when we could, we got into gaps. ... We had an unbelievable game plan."
San Diego State will pose a different challenge. The Aztecs aren't nearly the offensive juggernaut of Gonzaga or Miami, but they're elite defensively and bring more of the physicality, toughness and experience UConn is used to facing in the Big East.
But defense will still be priority No. 1 for the Huskies.
"We focus on defense," Newton said. "We get stops and run. Our best offense is transition, so our best offense comes from defense."