UCONN: it took heart to beat Duke - and to be the best
by Brian Ubell, MBA1
"To be the best, you have to beat the best", the oft-quoted Ric Flair mantra, became the rallying cry for the Connecticut Huskies, and a sharp defensive game plan and a sterling performance by the Husky backcourt enabled UConn to do just that. UConn's 77-74 triumph over heavy tournament favorite Duke was hailed as an upset for the ages, but the confident Huskies played in a fashion uncharacteristic of a heavy underdog. They took it right at Duke with a determination exemplified by 5'10" Khalid El-Amin's late game, in-your-face drive and jumpshot over Duke's mammoth Elton Brand.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun's game plan included a double team of Brand with a forward and not a guard, as is typical. Michigan State decided not to double Brand early in favor of concentrating on defending the Duke 3-pointer and got burned like an innocent vehicle in East Lansing in their semi-final defeat. The double team with a forward prevented Brand from making a quick pass back out to Duke's 3-point weapons, Trajan Langdon and William Avery, and it did a reasonable job at holding down Brand. Also paramount to UConn's success was picking up Duke's point guard, Avery, very early to slow Duke's transition. Despite Ricky Moore's defense (Calhoun has called him the best defensive player he has ever coached), Langdon still sizzled from beyond the 3-point arc, but Moore put the defensive clamps on Langdon when it counted in the last minute.
In that last minute, Duke was down by a point. Duke's Coach K decided to go without a timeout and put the ball in Langdon's hands, a move that has been questioned to some degree after the fact. Langdon is not known as a tremendous one-on-one player, and it seemed to make sense to have Avery penetrate and then hit Langdon for a spot-up jumper.
Langdon also had the stingy Moore on him, and Moore's in-your-jersey defense forced the Alaskan Assassin into a traveling violation. After a Duke foul and two El-Amin foul shots, Langdon advanced the ball up the court and fumbled it away to preserve the UConn victory.
UConn's backcourt was tremendous. Richard Hamilton will likely jump to the pros after his 27-point effort in the final. There were times when Duke could do nothing to stop him. Hamilton kept the Huskies in the game early after Duke jumped out to a 9-2 lead, and he consistently hit the big shot. UConn has another guy with the guts to take the big shot in the stocky El-Amin. Troubled by fouls, El-Amin stepped it up in "winning time" by repeatedly driving the ball down the lane for successful floating jump shots. Finally, senior Ricky Moore provided a spark offensively and with clutch defending.
With the victory, UConn ended the season 34-2, losing only one game when the team was, as Jim Calhoun described "whole" (Two starters were out of the lineup in UConn's loss to Syracuse). In another amazing statistic, UConn preserved its undefeated record away from winning an NCAA record 20 games. The last six, however, were the most important.
The Huskies wanted Duke. The media had virtually crowned Duke as champs, and the public may have believed them, accounting for a record low TV rating for the matchup of the two heavyweights with a combined 70 victories on the season. But the Huskies didn't back down. They beat the best, and they are #1.