OAKLAND, Calif. -- These are kids who won 29 games last year and were made to feel like ax murderers because a couple of free throws that could have won the 30th didn't fall.
Sometimes I wonder why anyone would choose to play in that atmosphere.
But they keep coming. They come from Los Angeles and South Carolina and Phoenix and Seattle and Louisiana and Utah and even Israel -- everywhere, it seems, but Connecticut. Jim Calhoun keeps bringing them to Storrs, which really isn't anything but a couple of teeny-weeny strip malls and a mailing address next door to Mansfield, which itself is not to be compared to Paris or Rome.
They come to Storrs to involve themselves in a colossal love-hate relationship with the basketball-loving people of Connecticut, most of whom are devout cynics. They come as innocent adolescents and leave as hardened men.
They will be playing out this little drama at least one more time. Tomorrow at the Oakland Coliseum they will meet UCLA for the right to advance to Seattle as the West Regional champions. For at least 24 more hours, they will be the beloved Huskies and not the reviled Huskies, because last night they delivered the goods. Last night they came out running at Maryland and never stopped, varooming to a 99-89 victory that left little doubt which was the better team.
This has been a very strange season for UConn. The Huskies are now 28-4. They won their first 15 games, soaring to the top of the rankings in so doing. Three of the losses were by a total of 68 points. Obviously, when they choose to be bad, they don't mess around.
Last night they were good. Make that very good. There were stretches when you could call them devastating. If you were looking for an illustration of what Connecticut basketball in the Jim Calhoun regime has come to mean, you need only watch large snatches of this performance, because last night UConn overwhelmed a very good Maryland team.
The Terrapins are a pressing, fast-breaking team. But they were unable to press Connecticut because too many of Calhoun's players can handle the ball. The Terrapins are quick, but UConn XTC was quicker. The Terrapins play hard, but Connecticut played harder. The Huskies didn't get every loose ball, just 80 or 90 percent of them.
"I thought they were quicker than we were," said Maryland mentor Gary Williams. "I'm sure they made a lot of people look slow this year. We just didn't catch the ball well, or react well. There were a lot of little things that show up when you play a team like Connecticut."
"Our goal," declared Calhoun, "was to attack their pressure with layups and scores. I didn't want to see us pull up."
And numbers, have we discussed numbers? Maryland has a very nice starting five and one quality sub -- Mario Lucas. Calhoun played 10 men in the first half, and they all helped.
Most of all, UConn managed to survive Joe Smith.
Sometimes the planets just aren't in someone's alignment, and that may have been the case for Maryland's magnificent sophomore center last night. He took a frightening spill while blocking a Donny Marshall shot in the first half. He was hit with a third personal with 5:05 left in the half and his team already trailing by 14 (37-23), requiring him to sit on the bench for the remainder of the half. He came back to score 16 points in the second half, but the best he could do was pull his team within four.
But during that second half, he did make one play that sums up his approach to basketball and demonstrates why he will become a great pro.
He began the sequence by air-jamming an offensive rebound in spectacular fashion amid heavy traffic. UConn quickly inbounded -- UConn always inbounds quickly -- and here was Kevin Ollie lobbing a lead pass to a streaking Marshall for a sure get-back two.
Uh-uh. As Marshall went for the pass, someone came from the parking lot to block the ball off the Husky and out of bounds, returning possession to Maryland.
This absolutely Bill Russell-like play was reason enough for any pro scout to have considered his trip to the Coliseum worthwhile. The rest of Smith's game has been well documented by now. But it is plays like this that separate the truly special from the merely gifted.
Beating a player like this in a big game imparts even more satisfaction to the achievement. Perhaps Maryland is paying a similar compliment to a couple of Huskies.
The Terps could start with Marshall, the smooth senior forward from Federal Way, Wash. Donny has blown hot and cold this season, but last night he was scorching. He ran the wings on the break like a Derby favorite. He spotted up for killer threes. He scrapped on the boards (nine rebounds). He was the embodiment of Connecticut's entire approach.
Another Terrapin abuser was sophomore swingman Ray Allen, whose 18 points and 11 rebounds are just the jumping-off point in the annotation of his contributions. Williams put the lithe 6-8 Exree Hipp on the 6-4 Allen, but the bigger man could not handle Allen's quickness and savvy.
And though Smith wounded UConn with 22 points and 14 rebounds, Calhoun's center tandem of Travis Knight and Eric Hayward combined for 27 points and nine rebounds. Any coach in America would take that any night.
It was, in sum, a great moment in Connecticut basketball history. It may even placate the fans for a day.
"We don't really worry about that," insisted Marshall. "The only pressure on us is the pressure we put on ourselves. We try to live up to the expectations not of others around us, but ourselves."
I don't know what they proved to themselves, but they definitely proved something to Maryland.