Tuesday, March 30, 1999

Duke lost? Believe it

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — This can't be happening. This couldn't have happened. You saw it in the faces of the Duke fans, seated in the close rows across from their team's bench. You saw it in gaze of all of them, and if you looked closer, you saw it in the players' faces, too.

        A season that had been so smooth, so serene, so full of double-digit wins it seemed crafted by a Swiss machine, was down to this:

        Trajan Langdon, the senior guard, with the ball and a dying clock. Connecticut defensive ace Ricky Moore guarding him.

        Langdon, in the lane, working on Moore, working, working ... walking.

        Funny. A season that had been a walk, ended on one.

        Langdon walked with 5.4 seconds to play, UConn leading 75-74. How could this happen?

        “If he got it, he wasn't going to do anything with it,” said Moore. “It was him against me. I stayed solid. I stayed down. He tried to do a spin move and I was right there.”

UConn earned it
        Sometimes, nothing is harder than doing the expected, especially when what's expected is a national championship. A nation of teams are gunning for you. Everyone wants to see if you blink.

        When winning is the only option, what comes from a loss?

        Connecticut beat Duke 77-74 to win the national championship. Straight up. There was no choking, no goat, just great ball by the Huskies, who believed they could win, then played like it.

        The recipe had been simple to concoct, impossible to perfect: Keep it close, plant fear and see what the weight of supposed greatness can do.

        No losses since Nov. 28. Thirty-two smiles in a row. One more from sealing the deal. Richard Hamilton makes two free throws. UConn leads 70-68 with 3:58 left. This can't be happening.

        It wasn't that Duke bent under the weight of the legacy it was supposedly creating. The Huskies simply broke them.

        Hamilton calmly dropped a three from the left wing with 3:28 to play. Brand had tried for a steal and missed, leaving Hamilton open. UConn led 73-68. The Duke crowd swayed nervously. This can't be happening.

        The Huskies did everything they needed to do, including holding Elton Brand without a basket for the first 12 minutes. Hamilton, who is velvet in the lane, was too quick for anyone Duke put on him. He had 27.

Moore and Hamilton show
        Moore, the guy coach Jim Calhoun called his best defensive player in 27 years, started the game making shots from all over.

        He made jumpers in the lane, he made layups. With about five minutes left in the half, Moore drove across the lane to his left and pumped up a short fadeaway as he was moving away from the basket. It banked in. He didn't even call it.

        Moore was feeling so chippy that once, after he was fouled, he yelled up at a section of Duke fans, including former Blue Devil deities Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, “They can't guard me!”

        Ricky Moore, 13 points in the first 20 minutes. A seven-points per game scorer. This can't be happening.

        Rip Hamilton, a slender, silky assassin, bent his body this way and that. He had 11 in the first half, nine more in the first 10 minutes after the break.

        Once on transition — the Huskies are beautiful in transition, a real Wallendas act — Hamilton was left wide open for a three on the left baseline. Langdon came flying in from the lane, too late. The trey gave UConn a 62-57 lead.

        Hamilton, a killer. Moore in the first half, banking everything. This can't be happening.

        It did. After Langdon walked, Duke fouled Khalid El-Amin. El-Amin swished the first free throw. Game, set and — he rattled in the next — match.

        UConn won't be recalled in the same light as Villanova in '85 or N.C. State two years earlier. The Huskies were a No.1 seed. But in the Year of Duke, Connecticut stood on the final day. That's all that mattered.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.