LEXINGTON, Ky. - Jim Calhoun made the long walk again last night at Rupp Arena.
The final buzzer sounded and the Mississippi State Bulldogs began celebrating at midcourt. Calhoun, coach of the Connecticut Huskies, took a brief, bitter look at them and started shuffling down the sideline to shake hands with State coach Richard Williams.
Another year, another premature ending in the NCAA tournament.
A particularly bitter ending this time.
"This team was the best I've coached in 10 years at Connecticut," Calhoun said after the Huskies slept through a 60-55 loss in the NCAA Southeast Regional semifinals.
His team had won 32 of its first 34 games, including 23 in a row at one point.
It had warranted the No. 1 seed in the regional and suggested it was ready to become the first Final Four team in UConn history.
Now it is just the fourth UConn team in six years to reach the Sweet 16 and lose in the regional.
"I don't think we could beat them in a series," Williams said, "but we don't have to."
Tell it to the Husky fans.
No team in college basketball has a more fanatical following; the Huskies attract more than 20 beat writers from newspapers around their state.
Yet no team has frustrated its following more consistently in the '90s.
The Huskies have become the best team never to make it to the Final Four.
They were a No. 1 seed in 1990; Duke's Christian Laettner beat them in the regional finals with a last-second jump shot.
They were a No. 2 seed in 1994; their star, Donyell Marshall, missed two late free throws that opened the door for Florida to beat them in overtime in the regional semifinals.
They were a No. 2 seed last year; UCLA, on the way to a national title, knocked them out in the regional final.
Last night's loss, to a No. 5 seed, had to be the biggest disappointment of all.
This year was supposed to be different. Even though the Huskies had lost several key players from last year's team, they had three seniors and an All-America junior, Ray Allen. Their prospects were so promising that Doron Sheffer, a guard from Israel, turned down a $500,000 offer to play professionally in Europe. He wanted to help the Huskies reach the Final Four at last.
Going into last night's game, the Huskies had the best record in all of Division I over the past three seasons (89-12) and were indeed looking like the Final Four team Sheffer had envisioned.
Then they started playing.
From their first dribble before a sellout crowd cheering for an upset, they played as though they were afraid to lose.
They exited the tournament with a strange, shabby performance that bore little resemblance to any of their regular-season games.
They fell behind by 16 points in the first 14 minutes, shot only 32 percent and displayed little of their famous pressure defense.
"I'm immensely proud of what this team has accomplished during the season," Calhoun said. "The only thing I'm disappointed in, and I told the players this, is we didn't go out the way we came in. We didn't run tonight. We didn't pick up the pace."
Give some of the credit to State, which played tough man-to-man defense and ranks among the nation's leaders in field-goal defense.
Allen had a hand in his face all night. His favorite driving lanes were shut off. He kept the Huskies in the game for a while, but wound up forcing desperate shots down the stretch. He scored 22 points, but missed 16 of 25 shots, including his last six.
On the other end on the court, State was led by the shooting of point guard Darryl Wilson, who hit five straight three-pointers in the first 11 minutes to give the Bulldogs a double-digit lead.
Down 33-17 late in the first half, the Huskies had assumed the familiar, glassy-eyed look of a favorite in the midst of an upset.
"I could tell they hadn't played from behind very often," State's Marcus Bullard said. "We got up on them and they started rushing things."
The Huskies drew close only when Williams began trying to coach and ordered his players to run down the clock instead of look to score in the final minutes.
A 14-point lead with seven minutes left was down to three with 69 seconds left after Sheffer hit a three-pointer. The Huskies then got the ball back, with a chance to tie, when State was unable to get the ball across half-court in 10 seconds.
State denied Allen and Sheffer on the game's key possession, though. Allen wound up forcing a three-pointer from the wing that clanged off the rim.
A few seconds later, Calhoun started his long walk down the sideline.
Pub Date: 3/23/96