Conn Artists In a tour de force of defense and grit, UConn created a hardwood masterpiece, shocking Duke to win the national championship

April 04, 1999

Say, hallelujah, for we have been saved. Thank you, Connecticut,
and thank you, Duke. Thank you for giving us a heavyweight fight
without Don King's judges. Thank you for showing us that the
game can still be played tough without sacrificing skill, speed
and savvy. And thank you for offering a purifying benediction to
an NCAA tournament that had been, in the blunt assessment of one
Final Four participant--Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves--pretty
ugly. "Twenty years from now, when I'm going bald," said Blue
Devils forward Shane Battier, "I can look back and say I played
in one of the greatest championship games ever."

Connecticut's 77-74 victory over Duke at Tropicana Field in St.
Petersburg on Monday night was indeed a thing of beauty, not to
mention a joy forever to the good people of Storrs, Conn., whose
beloved Huskies had gone forever titleless, notwithstanding three
Elite Eight appearances in the '90s. The victory was especially
redemptive because, over the past two years, the Nutmeg State had
lost its two pro teams, the NHL's Hartford Whalers and the ABL's
New England Blizzard. Then it watched in horror two weeks ago as
the UConn women's team was knocked out in the third round of the
NCAA tournament. To say that Connecticut's rabid fans were hungry
for a victory is like saying Rick Majerus has a bit of an
appetite. One Connecticut alumnus who's got a little game, Ray
Allen, met up with Duke alum Grant Hill near the court a few
minutes after this classic had ended and yelled, "Hey, Grant,
look!" Allen clutched a set of blue-and-white pom-poms and
pounded his T-shirt directly on the lettering that read
CONNECTICUT. Then he gave the saddened Hill a little love,
reaching out to hug him.

Let's give the Blue Devils a little love, too, for rarely has
there been a runner-up of such quality. With a victory in this
final title game of the 1990s, Duke could've proclaimed itself
the team of the decade--an honor it must now share with
Kentucky, which matched the Blue Devils in championships (two)
and was only one behind in Final Fours made (5-4). But until
Monday night, the 1998-99 season had belonged to Duke, which had
set the standard for consistency and cohesiveness. The Blue
Devils, who finished with a 37-2 record, seemed at times to be
playing in a league by themselves, blissfully unaware of all
around them. Duke was a 9 1/2-point favorite going into the
final because it always seemed to have the answer to whatever
tactics its opponents employed. If teams played fast, the Blue
Devils would beat them playing slow, and vice versa. Zone them,
and they would hit jump shots; go man against them, and they
would blow by you. Get them in foul trouble, and they would go
to their bench.

On Monday, however, Connecticut reminded us that a team can play
with reckless abandon and go one-on-one in the half-court, and be
disciplined at the same time. It also reminded us--silly us--that
no team is invincible, that answers can be found when the spirit
is willing and the brain is working.

The Connecticut coaches began formulating their game plan just a
few hours after the Huskies beat Ohio State 64-58 in one of two
sloppily played semifinals last Saturday. (Duke beat Michigan
State 68-62 in the other.) In their war room at the Hyatt
Regency Westshore in Tampa, coach Jim Calhoun and his assistants
talked from 11:30 p.m. until about 4 a.m., and it was almost all
about defense. Radical matchups (putting 5'10" point guard
Khalid El-Amin on the Blue Devils' 6'6" Chris Carrawell was one)
were discussed and discarded, but two points of the plan were
set in stone: Run, run, run on offense and, on defense, employ a
"big-to-big double team" (using the center and the power
forward) on Duke center and national player of the year Elton
Brand.

Both ideas worked to perfection. The up-tempo offense got
forward Richard Hamilton good looks in the open court--with 27
points, seven rebounds and three assists, the junior earned
about, oh, $10 million on Monday night if he decides, as
expected, to leave school early to join the NBA. In their
half-court offense the Huskies often caught Duke in switches
that left a bigger but slower Duke defender on quick dribblers
like Hamilton or El-Amin or guard Ricky Moore, who simply beat
the Blue Devils to the basket. "The more tape we watched," said
UConn assistant Tom Moore, "the more we learned that we're
pretty quick ourselves." Some kind of zone might've stopped the
Huskies, but Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski remained in his beloved
half-court man-to-man from start to finish. Call it staying with
what brung you; also call it being outcoached by Calhoun.

As for defense, Brand was swamped all night by a sea of white
jerseys. "I never knew where the double team was coming from,"
said Brand. Actually, it was usually coming from one man, power
forward Kevin Freeman, who left Battier and darted over to join
center Jake Voskuhl and put the clamps on Brand. When that
happened, the other three Connecticut defenders dropped into a
zone and kept Duke's other four players from getting good shots.

For all the talk of tactics, though, in the end it was
Connecticut's mano a mano toughness, particularly Ricky Moore's,
that won the day. With 15 seconds left and the Huskies leading
75-74, Duke went to senior Trajan Langdon to win the game. "I
heard Coach K yelling to Trajan, 'Go get the ball and take him,'"
said Moore. "I loved that. Him against me. All I had to do was
get one stop. I started smiling because I knew he wasn't going to
score that basket." Langdon juked and jived and tried to find a
driving lane to the basket. But Moore, perhaps the nation's best
man-on-man defender--the one, according to Calhoun, who "cuts the
head off the dragon"--blocked his path and forced Langdon into a
travel, an ignominious end to the Alaskan Assassin's college
career.

The championship game was a street fight, literally, for Moore
and Duke point guard William Avery. They grew up 10 houses apart
on Hazel Street in Augusta, Ga. "You seldom see two guys from the
same street play head-up in a game like this," said Moore. After
the game Avery visited the UConn locker room and hugged his
homeboy. "I love you, brother," said Moore to his old elementary
and high school teammate. "I couldn't have gotten here without
you." Such sweetness was not so evident during the game when,
after Moore beat Avery to the hoop for a layup, he turned toward
the Duke rooting section and yelled, "Can't guard me! Can't guard
me!" It turned out that Avery could guard Moore in the second
half--the Duke sophomore held him scoreless after he had busted
loose for 13 points before intermission--but Moore didn't have to
score to make his impact.

After the game Moore talked of a laminated card with the 23rd
Psalm printed on it that had been sent to him by Sheila McGinn,
mother of Joe McGinn, the Huskies' team manager who had died
after a long illness on March 9 at age 26. For the past two
seasons Moore had been finding inspiration before games by
reading the same passage in a Bible given to him by Voskuhl. That
"cup runneth over" part really resonated, Moore said, after
winning a national championship. Boy, for a bunch of tough and
cocky guys, these Huskies sure have a squishy side.

What endures from UConn's victory is the gallery of fascinating
personalities that make up this team. "They beat you not with
plays, but with players," Ohio State assistant Paul Biancardi
said after the Huskies' victory in the semifinals. If the 1998-99
Blue Devils could be likened to a high-quality but somewhat arid
series on PBS, then the Huskies were The Young and the Restless,
trouble and intrigue bubbling beneath the surface.

Voskuhl, their 6'11" center, even looks like a soap opera hero,
a larger-than-life stunner with killer blond hair (a little gel
and a little water before the game keep it in place) and a soft,
I'm-here-for-you-baby mien. He talks openly of being saved last
summer at Family Bible Church in Sugarland, Texas, near the
small town of Katy, where he was born. Several hours before
Monday's game Voskuhl had an hourlong heart-to-heart with his
pastor, Kerry Lucas, on the telephone. Did Lucas have any
advice? "Yes," says Voskuhl. "Stay out of foul trouble." Praise
the Lord. Though Voskuhl, as usual, had little statistical
impact on the game (two points, three rebounds, two blocked
shots), he also had only three fouls, and, in his 28 minutes,
contributed mightily to the double team that discombobulated
Brand.

Hamilton, for his part, got his pregame inspiration from his
paternal grandfather, Edward, who died last summer after a long
battle with lung cancer. Before the game Hamilton's father,
Richard--from whom he got his nickname, Rip, because Dad was a
good playground player whose jump shot ripped the nets--said to
his son, "Grandpa wants a national championship." Hamilton said
he was thinking of his grandfather throughout the game. They
became extremely close last summer when a broken foot Hamilton
suffered in the trials kept him from playing for the U.S. team
in the world championships in Greece. "It killed me not to play,
but I got to see my grandfather just about every day until he
died," says Hamilton. "I'm told things happen for a reason.
Maybe they do." On Hamilton's upper right arm he has tattooed a
remembrance, in the form of a cross with the inscription EDWARD
HAMILTON, OCT. 9, 1922-SEPT. 25, 1998.

Without a doubt, though, the Huskies get most of their colorful
personality from their firebrand leaders, the 19-year-old
El-Amin and the 56-year-old Calhoun. Though the UConn party line
makes it sound as if coach and point guard are locked in
perpetual embrace, theirs is not a one-note relationship. At
times during the season (though not in the tournament) El-Amin
could be observed tuning out Calhoun during timeouts, turning
his back and gazing elsewhere as the coach drew up a play.
That's probably to be expected of a young man who has issued
this proclamation: "I've said it before, and I'll say it
again--all this team was missing to win the national
championship was a player of my stature and my capability."

At the same time, Calhoun is a strong personality who isn't
about to allow footprints on his back, even from a player of
El-Amin's, ahem, stature and capability. "Jim gives Khalid
freedom of expression," says UConn associate head coach Dave
Leitao, "but occasionally Khalid steps over the
freedom-of-expression line." During a practice in Storrs before
the tournament, for example, El-Amin and Hamilton were arguing
loudly--as is their wont--about the score in a shooting game
when Calhoun told them to go to the baseline to begin another
drill. They ignored him and continued arguing. "Get the f--- to
the baseline," Calhoun exploded. This time they listened.

El-Amin might be a handful for a coach, but there is something
irrepressible--and irresistible--about him. Hamilton remembers
the first time he met El-Amin, at the Adidas ABCD camp for
marquee players in the summer of '95. The stocky point guard
from Minneapolis arrived two days late but immediately began
running the show. "It was wild," said Hamilton, who was on
El-Amin's team. "We were all disorganized, but here comes this
kid who says, 'Rip, you go there and do this, and you, we need
you over here.' He told us exactly what we needed to do to win,
and we did what he said and we won. I couldn't believe it."

It's hard to believe a lot about El-Amin. He has fathered two
children with two women, one of whom, Jessica, is now his wife.
They have separated in the past, but they are currently living
together. Then there is his distinctive body type, one more
suited to making cannonball dives into a pool than efficient
forays into the lane. (The UConn media guide lists him at 5'10",
203 pounds, but on close examination there's a suspicion that
you should subtract an inch and add seven pounds.) Throw in the
fact that he was raised as an orthodox Muslim--his father,
Charles, was an imam, as is one of his brothers, Makram--and
fans in hostile arenas have found El-Amin among the nation's
most inviting targets for abuse.

He endures the insults with a cocky smile, a bring-it-on-suckers
look in his eyes and a flashy playing style, all of which
inflame his antagonists even more. He has been called a
refrigerator with a head and a Cabbage Patch doll. He has
watched as fans waved pizza boxes and toy pigs in his direction.
He won't talk much about his married life or his religion, but
he doesn't duck the avoirdupois issue. "I don't have a so-called
point guard's body," he said in the tournament's grandest
understatement, and he concedes that he would probably be a
better player if he lost a few pounds. During a give-and-take
session with reporters on Sunday, the questions about his weight
reached a kind of Sally Jesse Raphael critical mass. The final
one was: Do you consider yourself an overweight sex symbol?
El-Amin, who had already discussed Slim-Fast (he doesn't use
it), looked the interrogator straight in the eye and said, "I'm
married, man."

Anyone who thinks El-Amin is a clownish, junk-food-eating
cartoon character badly misreads him. He is a clutch player who
thrives on pressure--"I can always count on him in the big
games," says Freeman. "It's when the spotlight's not on him that
I worry"--and cares deeply about the game. Hamilton calls him
"our Energizer Bunny," but he's also the team's emotional
catalyst. It's not uncommon for El-Amin to get so worked up that
he breaks down in tears in front of his teammates. The last time
it happened was three weeks ago, in the locker room at the West
Regional in Denver, before the Huskies went out to play New
Mexico in the second round. "He brought so much emotion to us
that we started out with a 17-0 run," remembers Freeman. The
Huskies won 78-56, and El-Amin had 21 points, seven rebounds,
two assists and only one turnover.

There were no tears from El-Amin before the championship game,
and, as usual, no fear either. Following the critical traveling
call on Langdon as the clock wound down, El-Amin was fouled with
5.2 seconds left. It was a tense moment, but Freeman wasn't
worried, for the spotlight was shining brightly on you know who.
The Huskies' leader stayed back from the line for so long that a
referee had to motion him forward. El-Amin walked slowly toward
the line, lifting his right arm in an exaggerated practice
stroke. His first practice dribble slipped out of his hand and
almost squirted away. He took a couple of more dribbles, cupped
the ball in his right hand and stroked it. Good. He turned and
thumped his chest at Avery, who was standing nearby, then
repeated the preshot ritual. Good again, and the Huskies led
77-74. Duke had time for only one more mad Langdon rush to the
hoop--he was stripped and never got a shot off--and it was all
over.

El-Amin's free throws summed up everything you need to know
about these worthy champions from Storrs: their grit, their
confidence, their sense of theater, and, of course, their clutch
play. The only one not impressed with El-Amin's heroics was an
arena security guard who, mistaking the pudgy hero for a
Connecticut fan, tried to corral him during a postgame
celebratory circumnavigation of the court. Another rent-a-cop
straightened out the mess, but El-Amin wasn't fazed. "I told him
to buy me a hot dog," said El-Amin. The perfect reward for
someone who did indeed prove that he is a player of stature and
capability.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER Yes, UConn Ricky Moore and the Underdog Huskies Stun Duke COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH CLARKSON/NCAA PHOTOS How sweet it is When the final buzzer sounded, a whole team of Huskies swarmed the court. COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON/NCAA PHOTOS GIVE 'EM THE HOOK Freeman was a force inside with six points, eight rebounds and his double-teaming defense. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH TOP DOGS Hamilton ripped the cords for a game-high 27 points while El-Amin went flat-out to beat the Blue Devils. COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON/NCAA PHOTOS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BRAND X Voskuhl may not have had gaudy stats, but he made his presence felt by helping to bottle up Brand on the low post. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN IN MEMORIAM Calhoun made the final cut on the championship net, but he left a strand in tribute to the recently deceased team manager.

Up-tempo play got Hamilton good looks in the open court. And in
the half-court, Duke often got caught with a slow defender on
El-Amin.

Voskuhl had a heart-to-heart talk with his pastor before Monday's
game. The reverend's advice? "Stay out of foul trouble."

Some kind of zone might've stopped the Huskies, but Duke remained
in Coach K's beloved man-to-man. Call it being outcoached by
Calhoun.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)