Say, hallelujah, for we have been saved. Thank you, Connecticut, and thank you, Duke. Thank you for giving us a heavyweight fight without Don King's judges. Thank you for showing us that the game can still be played tough without sacrificing skill, speed and savvy. And thank you for offering a purifying benediction to an NCAA tournament that had been, in the blunt assessment of one Final Four participant—Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves—pretty ugly. "Twenty years from now, when I'm going bald," said Blue Devils forward Shane Battier, "I can look back and say I played in one of the greatest championship games ever."
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 9½-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.
Both ideas worked to perfection. The up-tempo offense got forward Richard Hamilton good looks in the open court—with 27 points, seven rebounds and three assists, the junior earned about, oh, $10 million on Monday night if he decides, as expected, to leave school early to join the NBA. In their half-court offense the Huskies often caught Duke in switches that left a bigger but slower Duke defender on quick dribblers like Hamilton or El-Amin or guard Ricky Moore, who simply beat the Blue Devils to the basket. "The more tape we watched," said UConn assistant Tom Moore, "the more we learned that we're pretty quick ourselves." Some kind of zone might've stopped the Huskies, but Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski remained in his beloved half-court man-to-man from start to finish. Call it staying with what brung you; also call it being outcoached by Calhoun.
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.