Huskies, Not Duke, Put Their Brand on NCAA Tournament
Posted March 29, 1999 6:00 a.m. EST
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — They stopped the player who supposedly couldn't be stopped. They rattled the team that supposedly couldn't be rattled. They beat the team that supposedly couldn't be beaten.
Sixty-three teams presumably were playing for second place in the NCAA tournament nicknamed the Duke Invitational. Every team, that is, but Connecticut, which would accept nothing but first place.
So much for Duke's championship beach party in the first tropical Final Four ever.
``They knew they were going to win,'' Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said after his Huskies upset Duke 77-74 Monday to win the first national title in school history. ``They were going to beat the best - and they did beat the best.''
For the Blue Devils, it truly was a Blue Monday.
``I think I still don't understand the things that we did and what we accomplished,'' said Richard Hamilton, who led UConn with 27 points.
The biggest surprise of the NCAA final turned out to be Elton Brand vs. Jake Voskuhl.
Brand, the player of the year, was assumed to have too much skill, too much strength, too much game for the 6-foot-11 Voskuhl, a respectable shot-blocker and rebounder but an infrequent scorer.
Calhoun knew that Voskuhl, who has piled up plenty of frequent fouler mileage in this tournament, couldn't handle Brand by himself - and, if he tried to, he might foul out by halftime. So he didn't ask him to.
Instead, 6-7 Kevin Freeman doubled down on Brand whenever Duke tried to work the ball inside. Calhoun also substituted frequently and effectively as nine different Huskies played as many as seven minutes.
Souleymane Wane did spot duty for Voskuhl, and Edmund Saunders supplied valuable minutes - and valuable muscle.
``It was great team defense,'' Voskuhl said. ``We got help from everyone and everywhere. We had a great game plan, and that's why we won.''
Brand had 15 points, but was limited to eight shots and finished with only as many rebounds (13) as he had in the first half Saturday against Michigan State.
``We wanted to attack Brand as much as we could, and we were willing to use 11, 12 people to do that,'' Calhoun said.
At times, Brand felt like he was being defended by half the state of Connecticut.
``They made it really tough to get open looks,'' Brand said. ``They were fighting ... every time I touched it.''
``They broke our defense down,'' the Blue Devils' Chris Carrawell said. ``No one has done that all year.''
Maybe it's because it took Calhoun nearly all year to formulate the game plan.
Back in November, when UConn (34-2) and not Duke (37-2) was ranked No. 1, Calhoun and his staff began scouting prospective NCAA tournament opponents. At the top of the list was Duke, which didn't appear on the Huskies' schedule, but did show up regularly on their TV screens.
``I must have watched them 8-9 times,'' Hamilton said. ``They were always on.''
Calhoun accumulated the data on blue index cards, which he carried with him Monday in the very arena where Duke's season ended last year with a South Regional final loss to Kentucky.
``We wanted to put pressure on them,'' Calhoun said.
At the end, it was Duke that caved into the kind of late-game pressure it had felt so infrequently this season.
``I don't think Duke's been in a tight game like that in a long time,'' Freeman said. ``We were confident, and we said we were going to win it with our defense.''
They did, as defensive whiz Ricky Moore pressured Trajan Langdon into turning the ball over on Duke's final possession.
Then came the celebration that Khalid El-Amin nearly missed. As he returned to the court wearing one of UConn's championship T-shirts, a security guard mistook the Double XL-sized point guard for a fan and wouldn't let him on the floor.
``He didn't believe I was a player,'' he said.
It was if the security guard was confirming what much of America thought beforehand - the Huskies didn't have the look of a national champion.
``I think Duke's a great team ... they won 37 games,'' Calhoun said. ``But we're 34-2. We're not shocked. We're happy, we're proud, but I don't think we're shocked.''