Saturday, March 25, 2006

Survive and Advance!

My apologies for the lack of updates lately. I started the new job this week and have lacked the usual time and energy normally reserved for blogging. Anywho...

UConn 98, Washington 92 (OT). Wow. I missed significant chunks of the second half thanks to the local CBS affiliate broadcasting Florida-G'town instead. I tried unsuccessfully to get the game through PPV via DirecTV and that proved to be a debacle worthy of its own post. Too tired to pick myself up to head to a smoky sports bar, I settled for monitoring the game's progress via the ticker in the upper-left hand corner of the screen. Keeping tabs on a game that way is not recommended.

Despite Rashad's miracle trey to send the game into OT, this game ranks fifth at best among the pantheon of all-time great UConn NCAA wins. For one thing, as the #1 seed, they were expected to win (that's the lousy thing about rooting for the consensus "best team in the country" -- since winning is expected, you don't enjoy it as much. It feels more like relief than joy). More importantly, it's hard to call that game a "classic" because UConn was downright lousy for significant stretches. Here are my Top 5 best/classic UConn tournament wins:

1. 1990 Regional Semi-Final: UConn 71, Clemson 70. "It's Late, it's Tate, it's Fate." The phone lines in CT were literally jammed after Tate George's turnaround baseline jumper beat the Tigers. Unbelievable game that presaged UConn's status as a tournament force. Everyone remembers Tate but UConn fans will forever love Scotty Burrell (who was then a freshman) for his perfect full-court pass in the ultimate pressure situation.

2. 1999 National Championship: UConn 77, Duke 74. Trajan Langdon travels against Ricky Moore's tenacious defense, Khalid El-Amin calmly sinks two free throws to ice the game, and the Huskies shock the nation's consensus best team (37-1 entering the game) for their first national championship. And I was there!

3. 2004 National Semi-Final: UConn 79, Duke 78. An instant classic. Calhoun masterfully outflanks Coach K by recognizing early the tightness of the officiating. Calhoun sat Emeka Okafor, who picked up two cheap fouls early, for much of the first half despite the team's early struggles. With Duke in foul trouble late (especially Shelden Williams), Calhoun unleashes Okafor in the second half, and the big guy responds with 18 second-half points and the decisive hoop in a furious 12-0 run that capped the winning rally.

4. 1998 Regional Semi-Final: UConn 75, Washington 74. Rip Hamilton grabs Jake Voskuhl's miss and swishes a fall-away shot in the paint as time expires. One of those classic, "I remember where I was" games (Jock's & Jills in Brookhaven -- the place went nuts when Rip scored). Though the Huskies would lose the Regional Final to a loaded North Carolina team (featuring Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, and in Greensboro no less) the team showed the pluck and fortitude that would characterize 1999's championship squad.

5. 2004 National Championship: UConn 82, Georgia Tech 74. A classic payback ass-kicking that didn't show up in the final score. UConn avenged GT's 77-61 victory in November with a dominating performance. Tech had no answer for Okafor or Ben Gordon and the deadly inside-out tandem would go second and third respectively in that year's NBA draft.

5a. 2006 Regional Semi-Final: UConn 98, Washington 92 (OT). The epitome of winning ugly. People will recall Rashad's ridiculous 3 with 1.8 seconds left but the real story was Marcus Williams donning the Superman cape again. And Calhoun has no right to complain about officiating again for a long time: UConn went to the line 47 times (vs. 23 for Washington).

Sorry for the digression. Here is why I think they'll win it all -- UConn's margin for error is far greater than any other team's. All-American Rudy Gay was all but invisible (4-10 shooting, 3 rebounds, and 6 turnovers in 32 minutes). They shot a meager 12-21 from the line in the first half (but went 8-8 in OT). They gave up 17 offensive rebounds to a much smaller team. They trailed by double figures in the second half. And then there was the usual nemesis: the team committed 26 turnovers!

(In order to say "26 turnovers" properly, yell it in the same mix of outrage and disbelief as Dante in "Clerks" did when he found out how many, um, "tongue-lashings" (37) his girlfriend had performed in the past. Getting it out really makes you feel better)

All of these negatives, and yet I'm still waiting for them to put together a complete game in this tournament and just blow somebody away. A game where they minimize turnovers, make smart decisions, display focus and intensity, play ferocious defense (that had been missing until the second half last night), and crush the opposition on the glass. Whether it's against George Mason tomorrow or (assuming they get there) somewhere in the Final Four, I still believe it's coming.

Regional Final Fearless Predictions:

1. Atlanta: Texas 68, LSU 64
2. Oakland: Memphis 76, UCLA 73
3. Minneapolis: Florida 72, Villanova 71
4. Washington D.C.: UConn 80, George Mason 72

More to come after UConn-GM goes final tomorrow...

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