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NCAA Tournament Recap (Gonzaga-Connecticut)

Posted: Sat March 20, 1999 at 9:17 p.m. EST

PHOENIX (Ticker) -- Connecticut finally ended a decade of heartbreak and NCAA Tournament misery, reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history with a hard-fought 67-62 victory over 10th-seeded Gonzaga in the West Region final.

The top-seeded Huskies (32-2), making their 21st NCAA Tournament appearance, exorcised the demons of three regional finals in the 1990s with a gutty team effort that overcame a horrendous game by point guard Khalid El-Amin, who went 0-of-12 from the field but made two crucial free throws with 35 seconds to play.

Connecticut lost in the East Region final to North Carolina last year, fell to eventual champion UCLA in the West Region final in 1995 and was done in by Duke's buzzer-beater in the East Region final in 1990.

"For the last 10 years, we've had teams that made a run at the Final Four. Every one of those kids I loved. They never gave me one ounce of disappointment, but other teams got in the way of moving on," said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. "This is for them and for this particular team, which wouldn't allow anything to get in the way of getting to St. Petersburg."

Richard Hamilton scored 21 points and Kevin Freeman contributed 11 points and 15 rebounds -- 10 offensive -- as the Huskies wore down the smaller Bulldogs on the offensive boards in the final 10 minutes. Jake Voskuhl overcame foul trouble and scored six points, including two clutch baskets in the final 2:15.

"I think it was a matter of heart," said Freeman about the rebounds. "I think we really underestimated their play in the first half. It was a matter of winning and losing and Jake and I came in and we said we were going to rebound. I think it was the changing point in the game."

Gonzaga (28-7) had knocked off three large-conference schools, including 1998 Final Four participant Stanford, in its stunning trek to the regional final and threw everything it had at the Huskies. The Bulldogs tried every defense imaginable, from man-to-man to a diamond-and-one and triangle-and-two as the tiny Catholic school from Spokane, Washington, proved it belonged.

"We threw a lot of things at Hamilton, but he's good," said Bulldogs guard Richie Frahm. "We played him a lot of different ways."

Gonzaga also had the presence of mind to attack the basket when its biggest strength -- perimeter shooting -- was cut off.

"I think we had three good games shooting the basketball," said Bulldogs coach Dan Monson about his team's inability to hit 3-pointers today. "This team isn't just a 3-point shooting freak show."

Quentin Hall scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half for the Bulldogs, who were only 5-of-21 from 3-point range. They had gone 32-of-63 (50.8 percent) from beyond the arc in their three NCAA Tournament wins. Starting guards Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo were a combined 3-of-20 from the field, and Gonzaga never got off a potential tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds as UConn played tight defense.

"I thought it was a tremendous college basketball game," said Monson. "I thought both teams did a good job of disrupting each other. I think their defense was probably the best at disrupting us and getting us out of our offensive flow."

Headed for the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Florida, Connecticut will play the South Region champion -- Ohio State -- on March 27.

Connecticut threatened to pull away midway through the second half as Freeman capped a 9-2 burst with a tip-in that made it 53-47 with 7:43 left. But the 5-8 Hall refused to let the Bulldogs die, hitting a 3-pointer to halve the deficit and blowing by Hamilton, who fouled him as he made a lay-in with 6:45 to go. Hall made the free throw to pull Gonzaga even at 53-53.

Hamilton had a 10-footer but Jeremy Eaton sank two free throws. Freeman countered with two of his own to make it 57-55 and, after Eaton missed a 12-footer, Edmund Saunders had a follow shot to give the Huskies a 59-55 lead at the 4:39 mark.

Hall countered with a transition layup, but Voskuhl had a follow shot with 2:15 remaining. Hall made two free throws 16 seconds later as the Bulldogs trailed 61-59 heading into the final television timeout. Gonzaga got a huge break as El-Amin slipped trying to catch a pass and lost the ball out of bounds with 1:47 to play.

The Bulldogs were poised to tie the game again when Santangelo, a 78 percent foul shooter, was fouled by Moore 14 seconds later. But he missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Hamilton then sliced into the lane and hit Voskuhl, who was cutting along the baseline, for a layup to make it 63-59 with 62 seconds left.

Hall, however, hit an acrobatic 3-pointer as Hamilton guarded him to make it a one-point game with 35 seconds left. Hall quickly fouled El-Amin, but the sophomore sank both free throws to make it 65-62.

Gonzaga desperately tried to get off a tying 3-pointer, but the Huskies were equally desperate to prevent the shot on the perimeter. As a result, Frahm advanced into the lane and floated a 12-footer that barely scraped the front of the rim. After the ball was knocked out of bounds, the Bulldogs retained possession, but again were unable to get off a 3-pointer.

Santangelo missed a 10-footer in traffic and Hall fouled Freeman after he grabbed his 15th rebound. The junior made the first, allowing the Huskies to kick off a celebration 48 years in the making after their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1951.

"Kevin has had more artistic games," said Calhoun of Freeman. "Coming down the stretch, he got that look you occasionally see with him that he will not be denied. To get 10 offensive rebounds in a game like that, and when he got them... I think down the stretch, his rebounding was one of the most phenomenal things I've seen a guy do."

Neither team led by more than four points in the first half as Connecticut played all but the closing seconds of the final 16 minutes without El-Amin, who picked up two fouls in the first four minutes. Hamilton and Ricky Moore, who moved to the point guard spot after El-Amin went to the bench, combined for 20 first-half points.

"If they had pulled away, I would have had to roll the dice," said Calhoun about sitting El-Amin. "In the last 15, 10, five minutes, many teams have worn down on offense. I want to have the best ballplayers on the floor at the time. As long as we stayed within three or four points I felt we could roll the dice."

The Huskies outrebounded Gonzaga 25-14 in the second half, grabbing 19 offensive boards in the final 20 minutes. The Huskies shot only 37 percent (24-of-65) and missed all nine of their 3-pointers. Saunders contributed eight points and seven rebounds off the bench.

Hall had eight rebounds and Eaton was the only other player in double figures for Gonzaga with 11 points. The Bulldogs shot 35 percent (20-of-57) from the field.

"They just beat the best team in the tournament," said a bitter Bulldogs center Casey Calvary. "It was at the 30-second point when it changed. I really felt confident until the six-second point. That was the first time I felt we were going to lose. I felt confident until then we'd win."

© 2000 Sportsticker Enterprises, LP

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