Calhoun on spin cycle, UConn in survival mode
WASHINGTON -- This was so, well, UConn-ish. Play like you've got a charter jet to catch and then, at the last possible moment, decide, "What the heck, we'll stick around to play in the Elite Eight, after all."
Have you ever seen a team with so much talent play, for significant periods of time, so casually, so carelessly, so joylessly ... and still win? Connecticut, the de facto No. 1 seed of this NCAA Tournament, did it again in Friday evening's/Saturday morning's regional semifinal here at the Verizon Center, beating in overtime a Washington team good enough to win a national championship.
Instead, UConn left the court with the 98-92 victory, though nobody, including U-Dub's players and Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, is exactly sure how it happened.
"Eleven hundred basketball games I've been fortunate to be involved with, and I'm not sure I've been involved with something like that," said Calhoun, who looked as if he'd been through a rinse and spin cycle.
For much of this game Washington outplayed, outhustled, outdefended, outshot, out-thought and out-composured Calhoun's team. But, as usual, nobody could (for the lack of a better fake word) out-heart UConn. It remains Connecticut's most endearing quality, much more appealing than its NBA-quality talent and its NCAA postseason pedigree.
Washington was up by four with 21.2 seconds left in regulation, by three with less than 3 seconds -- and then it wasn't. Rashad Anderson's game-tying 3-pointer with less than two seconds left forced overtime, where UConn finally squirmed ahead of Brandon Roy and the most dangerous 5-seed this tournament has seen since Indiana reached the Final Four championship game in 2002.
"Handoff," Anderson had quietly said to UConn point guard Marcus Williams as Williams waited to shoot a free throw with 11 seconds remaining in regulation. "Give me the ball and I'll knock it down for us."
So Williams ran the play called "Handoff," dished the ball to a waiting Anderson, and then watched as UConn's season was extended or ended.
"When it was in the air, it just got real quiet," said Williams, who continued his postseason scoring binge with 26 points.
And then it got real loud as the ball towel-snapped the net. Moments later, UConn was headed to OT.
Calhoun insists this is one of his favorite teams in his 34 years of coaching. Fooled me, and anyone within hearing distance of the UConn bench. EMT units were on alert as Calhoun nearly melted the ears of Anderson and Williams during timeouts. Williams had those 26 points, but he also had a team-leading seven turnovers. In all, UConn committed 26 turnovers, which is usually death come Tournament time.
"In regulation, we probably made some of the most bonehead plays [we've] made all season, including myself," said Williams.
And yet, they won. Or survived. Take your pick.
Not long before the game began, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar approached Calhoun.
"Why's everybody asking what's wrong with you?" he said. "Aren't you 29-3?"
"We're not a pretty 29-3," Calhoun replied.
They aren't, and often it's their own fault. Friday night -- and into the wee hours of Saturday, thanks to the 9:57 p.m. tip-off -- Washington forced UConn into lots of those errors. Connecticut looked dysfunctional at times. The East Coast Huskies played with grimaces and scowls. Then came Anderson's trey ("Miraculous," said Calhoun). Then came OT. Then came a UConn victory and actual smile sightings.
"We're 30-3," said Calhoun. "I don't think we have to alibi who we are and what we are."
UConn's opponent will be bracket buster George Mason, which began the evening by beating the other entry from the Billy Packer Division, Wichita State. So terrified are the Patriots of Sunday's regional final against big, bad Connecticut that they'll probably have to ice down their smile muscles right up until tip-off.
"First of all," said George Mason coach/grin master Jim Larranaga, "we're having a helluva lot of fun."
You'd be having fun too if you were the first 11th-seeded team since 2001, and only the fourth since 1985, to defy the NCAA Selection Committee and office pools everywhere to reach the Elite Eight. So far the Patriots have disposed of last season's national champion, North Carolina; last season's Final Four semifinalist, Michigan State; and a better-than-you-think Wichita State team. Now they get the Huskies.
"We're all just loving it," said Larranaga, who will probably have a deal with McDonald's by the end of the week.
Larranaga is only one of the many reasons to root for The Little Team That Can -- And Is. When he whistles from the sideline to his team, Larranaga sounds like he's hailing a taxi. And about the only news agency he hasn't done an interview with in the last few days is Aljazeera. But don't worry, he'll get to it.
The Patriots exude joy, partly because they've perfected it in practice. Larranaga sings, dances, claps, and even plays baseball with his players during their workouts. If they were any more warm and fuzzy they'd be puppies.
Here's guessing Calhoun and the UConn fellas don't do sing-a-longs.
"This team is so loose," said George Mason guard Lamar Butler, who scored 14 against the Shockers. "We're not even supposed to be here."
But here they are, treating each win as if someone just handed them another winning Lotto ticket. As the scoreboard clock sprinted toward zeroes, Butler said he felt an adrenalin rush "from my head to my feet."
"We're having so much fun it's not like we're in a situation where we're nervous or have any kind of fear," said Larranaga. "Just as long as we can continue to do that anything is possible."
Hmmm. Fun. What a novel idea. UConn should try it.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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