Last week the Brendan Byrne Arena at the New Jersey Meadowlands was like an amusement park. There was Connecticut point guard Tate George riding the roller coaster that let him snatch victory from despair and then, two days later, feel triumph slip from his grasp. There was Duke freshman Bobby Hurley surviving the octopus ride that Connecticut calls a press. There was Blue Devil senior Alaa Abdelnaby, for whom the Meadowlands had been a personal chamber of horrors in years past, exiting the arena with a feeling of exultation. Finally, there was the prizewinning marksmanship of Duke's sophomore forward, Christian Laettner, whose 14-foot jumper with one second left in overtime gave the Blue Devils a 79-78 victory over Connecticut, their third straight trip to the Final Four and fourth such journey in five years.
All of those Final Four berths have come on the strength of East Regional titles won at the Meadowlands. Nonetheless, there was nothing blasè about the Blue Devils' reaction on Saturday as Laettner's double-pumping shot from the left of the free throw line nestled into the net. The Duke players ran berserk around the court and then piled on the 6'11" Laettner, whose response was madness in itself. "Everyone jumped on me, but I pushed them off," said Laettner, who was named the regional's MVP. "I wanted to get that feeling of them jumping on me again." He got his wish.
On Thursday Connecticut had experienced similar euphoria at the sound of the horn. Down 70-69 to Clemson in a semifinal game with one second to go, Husky freshman Scott Burrell—a former quarterback at Hamden (Conn.) High and a 1989 first-round pick of the Seattle Mariners as a pitcher—hurled an exquisite 80-foot inbounds strike to George, who had run a crossing pattern from the left side to get free for a shot from the right wing. The 6'5" George was off balance as he caught the ball, yet within that single tick of the clock, he turned, squared his body to the basket and fired a 15-footer, the most remarkable shot of an already remarkable NCAA tournament.
George, the lone Connecticut senior, had suffered through the Huskies' growing pains from Big East chump to Big East champ. His game-winner was a crowning and cathartic moment. "I may seem mellow now," he said later. "That's because I yelled so hard on the court I almost went to the bathroom."
Duke dispatched UCLA 90-81 in the other semi behind the outside gunning of Phil Henderson (28 points) and the inside hammering of Laettner (24 points, 14 rebounds). The Blue Devils' win set up a final that would hinge on the ball-handling talents of Hurley, an Emilio Estevez look-alike from Jersey City, N.J. (Exit 14A on the New Jersey Turnpike), against Connecticut's disruptive 2-2-1 press, spearheaded by George, who hails from Newark (Exit 14). Said Hurley's dad, Bob Sr., who had coached George on a schoolboy all-star team and Bobby at St. Anthony's High, "Tate has got to worry about Bobby's quickness; he's a pest. He won't be on his heels against the Connecticut press. He'll attack it."
Before the tip-off at the Meadowlands (Exit 16W), it was Bobby's stomach that was under siege, either from the prospect of facing the Husky D or from some fast-food hamburgers he had eaten the night before. "My seat [in the locker room] is next to the bathroom, and I heard him getting sick in there," said Abdelnaby. "When he came out, he had this green look to him. I offered him a breath mint right away, but he needed more."
In the arena many Husky fans were wearing TATE GEORGE FOR GOVERNOR stickers on their puffed chests. Right off Hurley showed not only that he could take UConn's pressure—he wound up with only two turnovers in 43 minutes—but also that he could penetrate into the paint to set up his frontcourtmen. Abdelnaby, a 6'10" center, responded as he never had before at the Meadow-lands; possibly because of the distractions that accompany playing near home (Bloomfield, Exit 16W) he had scored only 12 points all told in five previous games at Brendan Byrne. Against Connecticut, Abdelnaby got 17 of his game-high 27 points and grabbed half his game-high 14 rebounds in the first half, helping Duke to a 37-30 lead and picking up the slack for forward Robert Brickey, who played only 14 minutes because of a pulled left hamstring. "We needed Alaa to be big," said Laettner, who finished with 23 points, "and he was big the whole game."
Connecticut warmed up behind the shooting of reserve guard John (Microwave) Gwynn, who finished with 15 points, and guard Chris Smith, whose three-pointer with nine seconds remaining sent the game into overtime at 72-all. With four seconds to go in OT, the Huskies led 78-77 when Hurley crossed half-court and threw a hurried pass toward Henderson on the left wing. But George had cut in front of Henderson and was in perfect position to intercept the pass. "I thought that was it," said Hurley later. "It's like total defeat in your mind." George, however, couldn't hang on to the ball, losing it out of bounds in front of the Blue Devil bench. The clock showed 2.6 seconds.
Duke had planned for Laettner to inbound to Henderson or Abdelnaby. But Connecticut chose not to cover Laettner, so Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski called "Special," the signal that the in-bounder should receive a return pass after throwing in the ball. When guard Brian Davis took the inbounds pass at the top of the key, he flipped the ball back to the cutting Laettner, who dribbled once and shot. Laettner, an avid Stephen King fan, relished the suspense. "I didn't know when I let it go if it would be good," he said. George described how he felt when it was: "Numb."
"We went out the way we came in," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. "We fought, we dug, and we scratched. But you don't always write your own script in life."
Said Krzyzewski, "We're no better than Connecticut. We just won."
In a departure from last season's post-game celebration, when Duke chose not to cut down the nets after the regional win, Coach K ordered that the strings be harvested. Said Brickey, "It could just be practice."