The ‘Bill Walton-Esque’ Donovan Clingan Leads UConn Back to the Men’s Final Four

The ‘Bill Walton-Esque’ Donovan Clingan Leads UConn Back to the Men’s Final Four

BOSTON — Bill Clingan had just watched his son, Donovan, dominate an Elite Eight game in breathtaking fashion. His boy, now a 7-foot-2 man, had so thoroughly terrorized the second-ranked offense in college basketball that Illinois actually looked broken. As Donovan accepted the Most Outstanding Player award for the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional, having led Connecticut to a 77-52 victory and second straight Final Four, his dad’s eyes filled up with tears and fixed on the rafters inside TD Garden.

“I’m feeling … I’m feeling … oh, man, what am I feeling?” he said. “All kinds of stuff. So happy for him, his teammates, his coaches. So happy. But man, I wish she was here. I wish she was here so bad.”

Almost six years ago to the day, on March 27, 2018, Stacey Porrini Clingan, Bill’s wife and Donovan’s mom, died after a battle with breast cancer. She’d been a star herself in college, played in three NCAA Tournaments, scored 1,128 points, grabbed 929 rebounds, blocked 220 shots. Then she passed on the basketball bug to her son, taught Donovan so many of the things he unleashed on the Illini in the regional final. To have seen him play the game they both loved like this?

“My God,” Bill said, “she would be crying. She would be hootin’ and hollerin’. She was an amazing woman, and so much of her is in him. He’s doing this for her — and he’s doing it.”

GO DEEPER

UConn’s next big star plays for his father in the stands and his mother watching from above

Clingan delivered 22 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three steals in just under 22 minutes Saturday. As good as that stat line is, it doesn’t begin to describe his dominance. Illinois, with all its offensive firepower, missed all 19 shots it attempted when Clingan contested, per ESPN Stats & Info. In the first 17 minutes he was on the court, the Huskies outscored Illinois 34-4.

The reigning national champions have won 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament games by double digits — and an average margin of 23 points — but they’ve been even more unstoppable so far on this run than the last one. After the Illinis tied the game late in the first half, for 27 whole seconds, Connecticut (35-3) scored the next 30 points. Blink, game over.

how about THAT run?#MadeForMarch | #MixForSix pic.twitter.com/4aJOCwFvWV

— UConn Men’s Basketball (@UConnMBB) March 31, 2024

The Huskies are an avalanche, and this time Clingan was the stick of dynamite at the top of the mountain.

“It’s a hard month for me,” he said, moments before ascending a ladder to take his snip of the net. “I lost my mom six years ago in March. To do what I did today, it means a lot to my family and it means a lot to me. I know she’s happy. She dreamed of this as a player. I know she would be the first one in this stadium, the first one in the doors at every game, but I know she’s smiling down. And I know she’ll be even happier if we finish the job.”

Clingan scored the first seven points of the game. He blocked three shots in one 37-second span — two of them against Illini star Terrence Shannon Jr., who’d scored 25-plus points in seven straight games but missed 10 of his 12 shots against Connecticut. Clingan backed down Illinois big man Coleman Hawkins and scored right over him on the first play of the second half. He followed a monster block with a massive dunk on the other end in another 12-second burst of brilliance. Soon after, he dropped a reverse layup over Hawkins, spiked one more off the glass and initiated a transition sequence that led to a back-breaking Alex Karaban 3-pointer.

Bob Hurley, legendary high school basketball coach and father of Huskies coach Dan Hurley, stood with his mouth agape as the confetti fell on Clingan late Saturday.

“It was a blitzkrieg. No, you know what that was?” he said. “That was Bill Walton-esque.”

Clingan was an integral part of Connecticut’s national championship run last season, but he was a complementary piece. He came off the bench, behind star center and Final Four MOP Adama Sonogo. He averaged 13.1 minutes as a freshman, totalled 23 points in the Huskies’ final five NCAA Tournament games last year. This time around, Dan Hurley needs him to be the man, and he is more than delivering.

“He’s like the most impactful player in the country, along with Zach Edey. They’re the two guys who are just complete game-changers,” Hurley said. “What he did to them at the rim defensively spooked them, and obviously they had no answers for him offensively.”

The thing that makes Connecticut — which is 50-5 since Jan. 25, 2023 — so terrifying is that there are so many threats. The Huskies bludgeoned Illinois while getting just seven total points from star guards Tristen Newton and Stephon Castle. Karaban and Cam Spencer can detonate at any moment. Hassan Diarra comes off the bench, and he might’ve been the second-most valuable player on the floor Saturday.

But this version of Clingan? Healthy now, having overcome foot injuries before and during this season, and actively trying to break opponents’ will?

“He’s intimidating, even to me,” said Bill Clingan, who is not a small man.

“When he’s doing what he’s doing now,” Diarra said, “we’re hard to beat. We’re able to pressure the ball, really get into guys and force them to Donovan, because we know he’s got our backs protecting the rim.”

Dan Hurley has nicknamed him Cling Kong. Asked if he felt worthy of that moniker after Saturday night, Clingan said, “Hell yeah, I do.”

“He’s a jolly green giant,” Hurley said. “But he’s a dog. Don’t let the smile fool you.”

Clingan is also a homegrown hero, a top-40 recruit from Bristol, Conn., who stayed home for college — and stayed in college when he could’ve entered the NBA Draft after last season. Instead, he’s now on the cusp of helping the Huskies become the first team since Florida in 2007 to repeat as national champions.

“I don’t know if there will be such a special connection between a player and a state school,” Hurley said. “He’s a larger-than-life figure in the state, and his legend is growing.”

(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)



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