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Connvincing!

Huskies' grit, depth prove too much for Blue Devils

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Posted: Tuesday March 30, 1999 01:19 AM

  Down and dirty: Richard Hamilton and the Huskies didn't back away for a second from Shane Battier (left), Chris Carrawell and the mighty Blue Devils. AP

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- UConn? UCan.

The UConn Huskies are a blue-collar team that supposedly didn't have a chance against a blue-chip Duke team that felt so confident it didn't even practice the day before the biggest game of the year.

But it turned out to be a Blue Monday for the Blue Devils, thanks to an unruffled Connecticut team that didn't leave its A-game on the beach where its opponents partied Saturday night. And a bench that supposedly was far inferior to Duke's.

With coach Jim Calhoun yo-yoing players in and out of the game as if they were on an invisible string, the Huskies outworked, outplayed and outhustled a team that was being fitted for its championship rings weeks ago.

Final score: Connecticut 77, Duke 74.

"The kids truly believed this was possible, even when the folks around us -- and I was leading the parade -- were saying how good Duke was," Calhoun said.

"I don't know if we ever played a better game," Kevin Freeman said. "But this is the best of the best."

Sure, the stars came out for the Huskies, as Richard Hamilton scored 27 points, Ricky Moore transformed from defensive stopper to offensive sparkplug with 13 first-half points and Khalid El-Amin ran an offense that never wasted a single possession.

"I wanted to shock the world," said Moore, whose tight defense forced Trajan Langdon to travel on Duke's final possession..

The world is suitably shocked.

But the Huskies are national champions -- yes, national champions -- in great part because its bench players weren't content to play minor roles, outscoring a Duke bench loaded with four McDonald's All-Americans 17-8.

"We had a team that wanted to be the best, and to do that we had to beat the best," Calhoun said. "We knew it was possible because we hadn't played our best game yet."

Jake Voskuhl, the 6-foot-11 center whose coifed hair never ruffled even amid a frantic Duke second half comeback, banged and clanged all night with the supposedly far superior Elton Brand, who worked overly hard for each of his 15 points and managed to get off only eight shots.

"In the first half, they made it really tough to give me open looks," Brand said. "They were fighting the possession every time I touched it."

To keep the foul-prone Voskuhl in the game, Calhoun began substituting three minutes into the game, running players in and out so quickly that some of the Huskies' best fast breaks came in front of the scorer's table.

Edmund Saunders, more of a tight end than a power forward, came in to contribute valuable minutes and a physical presence that threw Brand off his game, and Souleymane Wane spelled Voskuhl with key minutes and four very-important points.

Maybe the Blue Devils left their game on the beach where many of the Blue Devils were seen reveling at 3 a.m. Sunday morning after the semifinals, only nine hours before a practice that was never held because coach Mike Krzyzewski felt they already were ready.

They weren't ready for this.

"They haven't been challenged in close games all year, but we win in close games," said Freeman, who helped double-team Brand. "We wanted to prove we are the best team in the country and we did."

Duke, the team that usually intimidates, finally ran into an opponent that didn't back down. Wane once stared down Brand as the two ran down the court, and Voskuhl seemed to get into Brand's mind -- and, once, into his shirt, nearly tugging him to the ground while nearly tearing off his jersey as he protectively guarded the baseline.

"It was great team defense," Voskuhl said. "We got help from everyone and everywhere. ... ... We had a great game plan and we stuck to it."

And the so-called Duke Invitation turned out to be the UConn Vindication. The Huskies had never before reached the Final Four in 20 previous trips to the NCAA tournament, and Calhoun, a Division I coach for 27 years, was known as one of the best coaches to never get to the round of four.

Now, he's the final one.

"I'm no better coach than I was three weeks ago," Calhoun said. "I said I didn't need a Final Four, as badly as I wanted to get there. But that guy you hear yelling tonight? That will be me."

 
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