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March 24, 1990: It's Late, It's Tate, It's Great

The Hartford Courant

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was a 17-foot turnaround jumper from the corner in front of the UConn bench, a desperate airborne prayer with no time left, the kind of shot you make only in dreams.

And in dream seasons.

Thursday night, Tate George and the UConn Huskies went to the outer edge of your wildest dreams. Just when things looked blacker than outer space, they danced on distant stars. They took their 1989-90 season from fantastic to beyond incredible.

To do that, they had to do something they hadn't done in a long time:

Mess up.

Boy, did they. Completely out of character, the team that had never lost a game it led at halftime blew a 19-point second half lead and was one second from being booted out of the NCAA Tournament by Clemson.

Then along came Tate.

Before this season, if basketball were a 20-man game, Tate George might have been your 19th choice to shoot an outside shot for all the marbles. He was such a poor outside shooter that guys like Providence's Carlton Screen gave him acres of open space at nitty-gritty time, daring him to shoot.

Not any more. After a disappointing junior season in which he was becoming somewhat irrelevant to UConn's success, George got his act together. He spent all summer shooting 300 jump shots a day in hopes of becoming an outside-shooting threat. So, how's he doing?

With four seconds left in UConn's season, George wasn't doing too well. With the Huskies trailing, 70-69, George found himself open for a jumper at the free-throw line.

He missed.

"I was the most surprised person in the building when he missed that shot," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "He always makes that shot."

"I was really upset," George said. "For the first time, I realized my career was coming to an end."

Clemson's Sean Tyson grabbed the rebound. Scott Burrell fouled him. Tyson missed the free throw and the Huskies rebounded and called time out with one second left.

But so what? They had 94 feet, 6 inches to go. It seemed like 94 miles.

"That first one was my best shot," George said. "and I missed it."

But he wanted the ball again. Nadav Henefeld and Chris Smith are better outside shooters, the Huskies' high scorers. Smith was the hottest shooter on the Meadowlands floor Thursday night.

But Tate George, the senior, wanted the ball one more time. On this, the most unselfish of teams, he wanted one more shot.

"After missing the first time, you just want the ball again," he said. "I didn't feel anything [nerves]. You just want a chance to win."

In dreams, you come back home to play the biggest game of your life. In dreams, your mom is in the stands when the moment of truth arrives.

Tate George was home. He's from Newark, just a 15-minute cab ride from the Meadowlands. His mom was in the stands.

And when the moment of truth arrived, when Scott Burrell, who turned down an offer to pitch for the Seattle Mariners for a moment like this, threw him the most beautiful 94-foot inbounds pass you'll ever see, Tate George did what you do in dreams.

George averaged 11 points a game for the Huskies this season. When his shot kissed the net, he had 12. That's what is known as covering the spread.

Of course, you've seen celebrations like the one the Huskies staged before. At the end of the Big East Tournament. At the End of World War II. Did the state of Connecticut go any crazier when Japan surrendered than when Tate George knocked out Clemson?

"You dream of making a shot like that," George said.

And if you're on the other end, you have nightmares. Clemson coach Cliff Ellis surely will. Calhoun sympathizes. He's had nightmares, too.

Calhoun will never forget when he was coaching Northeastern and saw his season end -- on the same court --when a kid from Virginia Commonwealth hit a similar buzzer-beater to boot Calhoun's kids out of the NCAA Tournament.

"I walked down the hall then and had tears in my eyes," Calhoun said. "Today, I was holding Tate's hand."

UConn 71, Clemson 70. The Huskies advance. Advance? They hop, skip and jump for joy into the East Regional final Saturday against Duke. One step from Denver and the Final Four.

Then, and only then, when it's finally over, will Calhoun say what he really thinks of George. He doesn't want to spoil his point guard with compliments when he hasn't finished kicking him the butt.

After Thursday night's miracle, someone at the post-game press conference asked Calhoun if it was time to talk about Tate.

"Pretty damn close to it," Calhoun said. "A magnificent shot by a magnificent player."

And at least 40 more minutes of life for a magnificent team. A team one second from bitter defeat. A team now three wins from ultimate glory.

By George, he did it.

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