In a tour de force of defense and grit, UConn created a hardwood masterpiece
Posted: Thursday April 01, 1999 10:10 AM
By Jack McCallum
Connecticut's 77-74 victory over Duke at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg on Monday night was indeed a thing of beauty, not to mention a joy forever to the good people of Storrs, Conn., whose beloved Huskies had gone forever titleless, notwithstanding three Elite Eight appearances in the '90s. The victory was especially redemptive because, over the past two years, the Nutmeg State had lost its two pro teams, the NHL's Hartford Whalers and the ABL's New England Blizzard. Then it watched in horror two weeks ago as the UConn women's team was knocked out in the third round of the NCAA tournament. To say that Connecticut's rabid fans were hungry for a victory is like saying Rick Majerus has a bit of an appetite. One Connecticut alumnus who's got a little game, Ray Allen, met up with Duke alum Grant Hill near the court a few minutes after this classic had ended and yelled, "Hey, Grant, look!" Allen clutched a set of blue-and-white pom-poms and pounded his T-shirt directly on the lettering that read connecticut. Then he gave the saddened Hill a little love, reaching out to hug him.
Let's give the Blue Devils a little love, too, for rarely has there been a runner-up of such quality. With a victory in this final title game of the 1990s, Duke could've proclaimed itself the team of the decade -- an honor it must now share with Kentucky, which matched the Blue Devils in championships (two) and was only one behind in Final Fours made (5-4). But until Monday night, the 1998-99 season had belonged to Duke, which had set the standard for consistency and cohesiveness. The Blue Devils, who finished with a 37-2 record, seemed at times to be playing in a league by themselves, blissfully unaware of all around them. Duke was a 9 1/2-point favorite going into the final because it always seemed to have the answer to whatever tactics its opponents employed. If teams played fast, the Blue Devils would beat them playing slow, and vice versa. Zone them, and they would hit jump shots; go man against them, and they would blow by you. Get them in foul trouble, and they would go to their bench.
On Monday, however, Connecticut reminded us that a team can play with reckless abandon and go one-on-one in the half-court, and be disciplined at the same time. It also reminded us -- silly us -- that no team is invincible, that answers can be found when the spirit is willing and the brain is working.
The Connecticut coaches began formulating their game plan just a few hours after the Huskies beat Ohio State 64-58 in one of two sloppily played semifinals last Saturday. (Duke beat Michigan State 68-62 in the other.) In their war room at the Hyatt Regency Westshore in Tampa, coach Jim Calhoun and his assistants talked from 11:30 p.m. until about 4 a.m., and it was almost all about defense. Radical matchups (putting 5'10" point guard Khalid El-Amin on the Blue Devils' 6'6" Chris Carrawell was one) were discussed and discarded, but two points of the plan were set in stone: Run, run, run on offense and, on defense, employ a "big-to-big double team" (using the center and the power forward) on Duke center and national player of the year Elton Brand.
As for defense, Brand was swamped all night by a sea of white jerseys. "I never knew where the double team was coming from," said Brand. Actually, it was usually coming from one man, power forward Kevin Freeman, who left Battier and darted over to join center Jake Voskuhl and put the clamps on Brand. When that happened, the other three Connecticut defenders dropped into a zone and kept Duke's other four players from getting good shots.
For all the talk of tactics, though, in the end it was Connecticut's mano a mano toughness, particularly Ricky Moore's, that won the day. With 15 seconds left and the Huskies leading 75-74, Duke went to senior Trajan Langdon to win the game. "I heard Coach K yelling to Trajan, 'Go get the ball and take him,'" said Moore. "I loved that. Him against me. All I had to do was get one stop. I started smiling because I knew he wasn't going to score that basket." Langdon juked and jived and tried to find a driving lane to the basket. But Moore, perhaps the nation's best man-on-man defender -- the one, according to Calhoun, who "cuts the head off the dragon" -- blocked his path and forced Langdon into a travel, an ignominious end to the Alaskan Assassin's college career.
The championship game was a street fight, literally, for Moore and Duke point guard William Avery. They grew up 10 houses apart on Hazel Street in Augusta, Ga. "You seldom see two guys from the same street play head-up in a game like this," said Moore. After the game Avery visited the UConn locker room and hugged his homeboy. "I love you, brother," said Moore to his old elementary and high school teammate. "I couldn't have gotten here without you." Such sweetness was not so evident during the game when, after Moore beat Avery to the hoop for a layup, he turned toward the Duke rooting section and yelled, "Can't guard me! Can't guard me!" It turned out that Avery could guard Moore in the second half -- the Duke sophomore held him scoreless after he had busted loose for 13 points before intermission -- but Moore didn't have to score to make his impact.
After the game Moore talked of a laminated card with the 23rd Psalm printed on it that had been sent to him by Sheila McGinn, mother of Joe McGinn, the Huskies' team manager who had died after a long illness on March 9 at age 26. For the past two seasons Moore had been finding inspiration before games by reading the same passage in a Bible given to him by Voskuhl. That "cup runneth over" part really resonated, Moore said, after winning a national championship. Boy, for a bunch of tough and cocky guys, these Huskies sure have a squishy side.
What endures from UConn's victory is the gallery of fascinating personalities that make up this team. "They beat you not with plays, but with players," Ohio State assistant Paul Biancardi said after the Huskies' victory in the semifinals. If the 1998-99 Blue Devils could be likened to a high-quality but somewhat arid series on PBS, then the Huskies were The Young and the Restless, trouble and intrigue bubbling beneath the surface.
Voskuhl, their 6'11" center, even looks like a soap opera hero, a larger-than-life stunner with killer blond hair (a little gel and a little water before the game keep it in place) and a soft, I'm-here-for-you-baby mien. He talks openly of being saved last summer at Family Bible Church in Sugarland, Texas, near the small town of Katy, where he was born. Several hours before Monday's game Voskuhl had an hourlong heart-to-heart with his pastor, Kerry Lucas, on the telephone. Did Lucas have any advice? "Yes," says Voskuhl. "Stay out of foul trouble." Praise the Lord. Though Voskuhl, as usual, had little statistical impact on the game (two points, three rebounds, two blocked shots), he also had only three fouls, and, in his 28 minutes, contributed mightily to the double team that discombobulated Brand.
Hamilton, for his part, got his pregame inspiration from his paternal grandfather, Edward, who died last summer after a long battle with lung cancer. Before the game Hamilton's father, Richard -- from whom he got his nickname, Rip, because Dad was a good playground player whose jump shot ripped the nets -- said to his son, "Grandpa wants a national championship." Hamilton said he was thinking of his grandfather throughout the game. They became extremely close last summer when a broken foot Hamilton suffered in the trials kept him from playing for the U.S. team in the world championships in Greece. "It killed me not to play, but I got to see my grandfather just about every day until he died," says Hamilton. "I'm told things happen for a reason. Maybe they do." On Hamilton's upper right arm he has tattooed a remembrance, in the form of a cross with the inscription EDWARD HAMILTON, OCT. 9, 1922-SEPT. 25, 1998.
Without a doubt, though, the Huskies get most of their colorful personality from their firebrand leaders, the 19-year-old El-Amin and the 56-year-old Calhoun. Though the UConn party line makes it sound as if coach and point guard are locked in perpetual embrace, theirs is not a one-note relationship. At times during the season (though not in the tournament) El-Amin could be observed tuning out Calhoun during timeouts, turning his back and gazing elsewhere as the coach drew up a play. That's probably to be expected of a young man who has issued this proclamation: "I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- all this team was missing to win the national championship was a player of my stature and my capability."
At the same time, Calhoun is a strong personality who isn't about to allow footprints on his back, even from a player of El-Amin's, ahem, stature and capability. "Jim gives Khalid freedom of expression," says UConn associate head coach Dave Leitao, "but occasionally Khalid steps over the freedom-of-expression line." During a practice in Storrs before the tournament, for example, El-Amin and Hamilton were arguing loudly -- as is their wont -- about the score in a shooting game when Calhoun told them to go to the baseline to begin another drill. They ignored him and continued arguing. "Get the f--- to the baseline," Calhoun exploded. This time they listened.
It's hard to believe a lot about El-Amin. He has fathered two children with two women, one of whom, Jessica, is now his wife. They have separated in the past, but they are currently living together. Then there is his distinctive body type, one more suited to making cannonball dives into a pool than efficient forays into the lane. (The UConn media guide lists him at 5'10", 203 pounds, but on close examination there's a suspicion that you should subtract an inch and add seven pounds.) Throw in the fact that he was raised as an orthodox Muslim -- his father, Charles, was an imam, as is one of his brothers, Makram -- and fans in hostile arenas have found El-Amin among the nation's most inviting targets for abuse.
He endures the insults with a cocky smile, a bring-it-on-suckers look in his eyes and a flashy playing style, all of which inflame his antagonists even more. He has been called a refrigerator with a head and a Cabbage Patch doll. He has watched as fans waved pizza boxes and toy pigs in his direction. He won't talk much about his married life or his religion, but he doesn't duck the avoirdupois issue. "I don't have a so-called point guard's body," he said in the tournament's grandest understatement, and he concedes that he would probably be a better player if he lost a few pounds. During a give-and-take session with reporters on Sunday, the questions about his weight reached a kind of Sally Jesse Raphael critical mass. The final one was: Do you consider yourself an overweight sex symbol? El-Amin, who had already discussed Slim-Fast (he doesn't use it), looked the interrogator straight in the eye and said, "I'm married, man."
Anyone who thinks El-Amin is a clownish, junk-food-eating cartoon character badly misreads him. He is a clutch player who thrives on pressure -- "I can always count on him in the big games," says Freeman. "It's when the spotlight's not on him that I worry" -- and cares deeply about the game. Hamilton calls him "our Energizer Bunny," but he's also the team's emotional catalyst. It's not uncommon for El-Amin to get so worked up that he breaks down in tears in front of his teammates. The last time it happened was three weeks ago, in the locker room at the West Regional in Denver, before the Huskies went out to play New Mexico in the second round. "He brought so much emotion to us that we started out with a 17-0 run," remembers Freeman. The Huskies won 78-56, and El-Amin had 21 points, seven rebounds, two assists and only one turnover.
There were no tears from El-Amin before the championship game, and, as usual, no fear either. Following the critical traveling call on Langdon as the clock wound down, El-Amin was fouled with 5.2 seconds left. It was a tense moment, but Freeman wasn't worried, for the spotlight was shining brightly on you know who. The Huskies' leader stayed back from the line for so long that a referee had to motion him forward. El-Amin walked slowly toward the line, lifting his right arm in an exaggerated practice stroke. His first practice dribble slipped out of his hand and almost squirted away. He took a couple of more dribbles, cupped the ball in his right hand and stroked it. Good. He turned and thumped his chest at Avery, who was standing nearby, then repeated the preshot ritual. Good again, and the Huskies led 77-74. Duke had time for only one more mad Langdon rush to the hoop -- he was stripped and never got a shot off -- and it was all over.
El-Amin's free throws summed up everything you need to know about these worthy champions from Storrs: their grit, their confidence, their sense of theater, and, of course, their clutch play. The only one not impressed with El-Amin's heroics was an arena security guard who, mistaking the pudgy hero for a Connecticut fan, tried to corral him during a postgame celebratory circumnavigation of the court. Another rent-a-cop straightened out the mess, but El-Amin wasn't fazed. "I told him to buy me a hot dog," said El-Amin. The perfect reward for someone who did indeed prove that he is a player of stature and capability.
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