Somewhere in this fair land, UConn fans should hope, Christian Laettner was tuned to CBS Saturday afternoon.
It was then that the Huskies ended a decade of threats and dashed hopes and finally realized their goal of reaching the Final Four. They defeated Gonzaga, a team of potential Laettners, in the
NCAA West Regional final at America West Arena. The score was 67-62.
This was a three- sweat bucket game that ended with a chilling shower. Before the nets were cut,Rashamel Jones sneaked behind a band of leaping teammates and emptied a vat of ice water over the head of coach Jim Calhoun.
For perhaps the first time in his career, Calhoun was out of the coaching box and in no threat of a technical. He could have stamped his foot and proclaimed himself free of the ghosts of Duke, Mississippi State, Florida, UCLA. He could have wagged his finger at 4 million nagging fans, not to mention the Horde.
He just smiled and wiped tears from his eyes. There was irony in his quiet, smiling serenity.
``I did jump when that ice water hit me,'' Calhoun said. ``I prefer to have another bucket dumped on me in another week or so. That, I wouldn't mind.''
The Huskies (32-2) will meet South champion Ohio State (27-8) Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
It wasn't easy getting there.
Maybe UConn was seeded No. 1, maybe Gonzaga was seeded No. 10, and maybe nobody east of Idaho had ever heard of the Zags. No matter. Those Zags are good.
Richard Hamilton led the Huskies with 21 points. Kevin Freeman had a monstrous 13 points and 15 rebounds, 10 offensive. Ricky Moore kept his team in the game in the first half and finished with 12 points.
Gonzaga (28-7) got 18 points and eight rebounds from 5-foot-8 point guard Quentin Hall.
UConn center Jake Voskuhl got a call from his buddies at Stanford, Tim Young and Ryan Mendez, the other day. Gonzaga beat Stanford, a No. 2 seed, in the second round.
``Both Tim and Ryan said, `We underestimated them and that's why we lost,' '' Voskuhl said. ``Both of them were like, `Look out.' ''
Gonzaga became even better when UConn lost Khalid El-Amin to foul trouble. El-Amin picked up his second foul four minutes in. By then, the Zags had shown they were not afraid.
With El-Amin out of the picture, the Zags could concentrate on stopping Hamilton. Moore took it upon himself to penetrate the defense, score and be fouled. Moore had nine points in the first half; Hamilton, 11.
The first 20 minutes were entirely back and forth. UConn was overly cautious of the Zags' wont to shoot three-pointers and overplayed on the perimeter. The Zags busted the ball inside, where Jeremy Eaton, Casey Calvary and Mike Leasure did damage. The Zags had a 32-31 lead at halftime.
Just over three minutes into the second half, after a jam-back by Calvary, the Zags had a 41-37 lead.
``It came down to a matter of heart,'' Freeman said. ``I think we really underestimated their inside play in the first half. Then it was a matter of winning the game or losing. Jake and I and Edmund [Saunders] came in and said we were going to rebound. And I think that was the changing point.''
The Huskies outrebounded the Zags 37-22 in the second half. UConn had 10 second-chance points in the last nine minutes.
El-Amin reappeared and assisted on three consecutive field goals. The Huskies overtook the Zags when El-Amin set up a strong move for Freeman with 10 minutes, 52 seconds remaining. It was 46-45, and the Huskies would not trail again.
They were in the middle of an 8-0 run that gave them a 51-45 lead. The capper was a three- point play by Moore, his second of the game. There was 8:58 left.
The Zags assembled an 8-2 run, highlighted by a three-point field goal and a three-point play, both by Hall. It was 53-53.
After a timeout, Hamilton hit a tough turnaround in the lane. But the Zags weren't going away. Hall hit both ends of a one-and-one to pull to 61-59 with 1:59 left.
Faced with full-court pressure, the Huskies had to be patient. On one trip, they cashed in with an El-Amin feed and a Voskuhl backdoor dunk. After a defensive stop, the Huskies again began meandering up the court, and El-Amin took his eyes off a pass from Moore and fumbled out of bounds.
Somewhere, was Laettner thinking of Tate George?
Hall then made one of the shots of the tournament. He faked Hamilton, who flew past, and hit a double-pump three-pointer. That cut UConn's lead to 63-62 with 36.6 seconds left.
``It was pretty sweet,'' Hall said. ``It went down. But it didn't help.''
The Zags had to foul. El-Amin made two free throws with 34 seconds left. It was 65-62 and the Zags had a chance to tie. Instead, Richie Frahm, cuffed most of the night by Hamilton, drove for a layup that did not go. The ball went out of bounds and the Zags retained possession.
Again, they opted for a two-point shot, a drive by Matt Santangelo. Santangelo's difficult layup attempt did not fall and the rebound was batted to Freeman, who was fouled with 6.2 seconds remaining.
Freeman made two free throws, stole the inbounds and fired the ball in the air.