Through bruises and missing teeth, Donovan Clingan helping UConn men: 'We didn't know he'd be this dominant'

ALBANY — In the back corner of the UConn men’s basketball locker room Saturday afternoon, Donovan Clingan sat and chatted with time to kill, as if he had just cast his line into the water.

He wore a black Huskies Basketball zip-up hoodie and a black bucket hat with the NCAA’s March Madness logo, pulled from a swag bag Saturday morning and then pulled to his brow. It will come in handy while fishing this summer on streams and ponds in Bristol, and in ocean waters miles offshore.   

“Bass, trout, deep sea for tuna, I love it all,” Clingan said. “Very relaxing.”

The bruise below Clingan’s right eye had yellowed and nearly disappeared. Trips to the dentist — first in December, again in February — had replaced the tooth twice knocked from his mouth this season and he smiled, time and again, when retracing the lightning-fast steps of the past 12 months.

His first season at UConn has gone very well. The text messages are rolling in from Bristol this week.

“Just telling me how proud they are and what it means to see someone from Bristol playing for Connecticut in March Madness,” Clingan said. “All my friends, really talking about how proud they are. I want to make them [prouder], keep winning and keep doing what I'm doing and keep getting better and better every day.”

The Huskies play a second-round West Regional NCAA Tournament game Sunday against St. Mary’s at MVP Arena. A trip to Las Vegas and a ticket to the Sweet 16 is on the line and Clingan, the 7-foot-2 freshman center who stands out for so many reasons, has managed to blend in as one of the Huskies’ many critical links.

A year ago Sunday, Clingan was at Mohegan Sun Arena.

“The 19th, yeah, state championship game,” he said. “I was competing for a state championship a year ago. Now I'm competing for a national championship. It's crazy how time flies. High school was a time to remember. The memories I got from high school, playing in the state tournament and winning the state championship, are memories I'll cherish forever.”

Clingan’s final high school game was a stamp on one of the most celebrated careers in CIAC history.

On March 19, 2022, he had 25 points and 24 rebounds in Bristol Central’s 56-36 victory over Northwest Catholic for the Division II title. Central’s 43rd consecutive victory brought home the program’s first championship since 1990.

On March 19, 2023, Clingan will try to help UConn to a second NCAA site for the first time since 2014. The Huskies opened the tournament Friday with a victory over Iona, a game they dominated inside. Adama Sanogo (28 and 13) and Clingan (12 and nine) combined for 41 points and 25 rebounds and it was the latest reminder that UConn has something that few teams, if any, have inside.

That is a lot of points and a lot of rebounds at the center position.

“Especially in college,” Sanogo said. “Me and Donovan, we know every game we show up, when Donovan plays good and I play good, we always win those games. For us to win, we have to win our matchup. Oh, my god, Donovan, helps me so much, helps the team. One time I said, ‘Donovan, last year, at the end of the season, I was so tired.’ But Donovan is there now. I'm very proud of him.’”

Clingan is averaging 7.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 13.2 minutes for the Huskies (26-8).

“We knew we were going to have an impact from him,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “We didn't know he'd be this dominant, though, at times.”

Clingan and Sanogo will be key to UConn’s game against St. Mary’s. The Huskies are second in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-9.2. The Gaels, ninth at plus-7.2, are led up front by 6-10 center Mitchell Saxen, averaging 11.8 points and 7.8 rebounds, and 6-8 forward Kyle Bowen, averaging 5.2 and 7.1.

Clingan was waiting in the wings for moments like this for so long, it seemed. He attended many UConn home games over his final two years at Bristol Central, both before and after he committed. And soon enough he was a Michigan fan no longer.

“I watched UConn, enjoyed watching UConn,” Clingan said. “I was a Michigan fan. But once it came time to decide where I wanted to go to school, I realized that UConn was the best choice for me. Yeah, because it's like 45-50 minutes from my house. But at the same time, the coaching staff, the environment, just the school itself has got such a good history. I realized I'd be happiest here.”

Can we revisit that for a moment? Michigan? Didn’t Clingan attend UConn games in Hartford and Storrs, even when he was a little kid?

“I did,” he said. “But I was a die-hard Michigan fan. I always watched every single one of their games. But once I got to my junior year, I was like, my favorite team doesn't mean something. It's about where I want to go. I definitely enjoyed going to UConn games, but I was a Michigan fan.”

Hurley attended that championship game at Mohegan Sun, just two days after the Huskies were upset in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament by New Mexico State in Buffalo.

A few months later, Clingan arrived in Storrs having transformed his body, losing about 25 pounds to get to 265. He embraced his summer session matchups with Sanogo (6-9, 245).

“Trying to back him down like I was backing down high schoolers, and I wasn't going anywhere,” Clingan said. “It's like trying to move a brick wall. Adama is the reason why I keep getting better. Battle against him, one of the best big men in the country, is a privilege for me. It also helps him, too. He doesn't see too many seven-footers. Practicing against someone who is 7-2 definitely helps.”

Clingan never lacked confidence, never felt uncomfortable.

“He's a guy who wants to do it,” said Sanogo, a captain who is hard on new players, setting an immediate expectation. “A lot of freshman when they come, they see some things they don’t want to do. They want to go home. Donovan was not that type of person. It was impressive.”

It’s been a joy for Clingan and his father, Bill, who celebrates his son's achievements on social media. Clingan’s mother, Stacey Porrini Clingan, is Bristol Central’s all-time leading rebounder and a major reason by Donovan remained in public school. She was also a standout player at Maine, telling Donovan long before her 2018 death about the joys of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Her Maine team made the field three times, losing to a first-round game to UConn in 1995, her sophomore season.

“My dad means a lot to me,” Clingan said. “I know sometimes he gets Twitter-happy and stuff. I just know he's proud of me and he's happy for me and he loves seeing me here at UConn. Obviously since my mom passed, he's always been there for me and supportive of whatever decision I wanted to make. That's all I could ask for.”

Clingan was 5-for-7 from the field Friday, including a monster dunk that came amidst all the elbow room in the world and a difficult finish off the glass in traffic while absorbing contact. His nine rebounds were two shy of his career high and the most he’s posted since 10 at Marquette Jan. 11. His 12 points are most since his career-high 20, also at Marquette.  

“One thing Coach said is, it's March, refs aren't going to be looking for every call,” Clingan said. “You have to play through physicality.”

Neither Clingan nor Sanogo were called for a foul against Iona. That has happened just one other time this season, Dec. 10 against LIU. Clingan replaced Sanogo early and had eight points and eight rebounds by halftime. Sanogo regrouped and owned the second half, with 22 points and 10 boards.

“Trying to dominate and live up to what he's doing out there on the court is important for me to help my team win,” Clingan said. “If you've got one center in there that's playing well and you bring in someone else in who is not doing so well, that's when the lead can go away.”

Clingan has limped around in recent weeks, having taken a pounding to his lower body. There’s the black eye, the elbows to the face, the dental damage. He is eager to go fishing. First, he wants to keep dancing.