Washington, D.C. notebook: History put on hold
By Greg Abel, Special to Yahoo! Sports
March 18, 2006
PHILADELPHIA – Earlier this week, Albany coach Will Brown said he and his team were the only ones in the country who believed – truly believed – that they could beat top-seeded Connecticut. Not just hang in there and avoid getting blown out, but actually win the game.
Friday night, the Great Danes nearly pulled it off. For 30 minutes, they outplayed mighty UConn. In the last 10 minutes, they simply ran out of gas and the Huskies won, 72-59.
"People thought Why Not Us?' was a gimmick," Brown said of the team's motto for the week. "It wasn't a gimmick. We believed."
They believed so much that Brown packed two suits for the weekend and requested and received highlight tapes of UAB and Kentucky, the two possible second-round opponents.
All week, Brown prepared his team for a ballgame, not an exhibition or a showcase for UConn. His players bought in and nearly brought the house down, along with the Huskies. In the first 10 minutes of the second half, Albany went on a 20-7 tear to go up 50-38, and the Wachovia Center crowd went wild.
Fans in green for UAB, blue for Kentucky, and red for Arizona stood and roared. The Albany fans, decked out in royal purple and gold, screamed and yelled and nearly passed out. A 16-seed had never beaten a 1-seed, but suddenly it seemed possible.
And then it wasn't. UConn made its run. Finally. The Huskies started making shots and getting stops on defense. The rotation of ultra-talented, blue-chip players stepped up at the same time the Albany players wore down. Point guard Marcus Williams and Denham Brown calmly drained clutch three-pointers.
A Josh Boone dunk here, a Rudy Gay blocked shot there, and slowly but surely, UConn's household names put away Albany's unknowns. UConn finally grabbed the lead with six minutes left. Once they had it, Albany had nothing left.
Asked if they allowed themselves during the game to start thinking about the enormity of what was unfolding, Albany players acknowledged that they did, even though they didn't want to.
"It popped into our mind, this could happen," said sophomore guard Brian Lillis, "and that was not a good thing. We didn't want to [think about beating Connecticut], it just happened."
Said junior guard Jamar Wilson, who led the Great Danes with 17 points: "I would be a fool if I didn't say I was looking at the clock. We played very hard. They have five NBA players on that team. I can't wait to get home and watch the game and see some of the things we did in practice and then did in the game. I can go to sleep really proud and I'm really happy."
After the final buzzer, UConn coach Jim Calhoun gave Brown a hug at midcourt and later joked about it. "I don't even know Will Brown," Calhoun said. "I hugged Coach Brown and said, you guys are special.'"
Calhoun knew exactly how hard Brown and his team worked, and that they gave UConn a scare and perhaps an experience that will help them go deep into the tournament.
"Albany gave us every single thing they ever had," Calhoun said. "Albany was magnificent for 30 minutes and UConn was equal or more magnificent for the last 10 minutes. I had never seen us look like that. I'm very proud they knocked our team down, but not out."
BATTLE OF THE TITANS
Believe it or not, Sunday's matchup between Kentucky and Connecticut will mark the very first time that the programs have faced each other.
"I don't know how our paths have not crossed," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith after his team outlasted Alabama-Birmingham, 69-64.
The Wildcats played a disciplined and opportunistic – if not exactly pretty – game to get the win Friday night, turning the ball over just eight times while making 26 of 30 free throws. Of the challenge his team faces Sunday, Smith said the Wildcats will need to play their best game of the season and then laid the superlatives on Connecticut.
"They're awesome," he said. "They're a great team with talented people. They've got depth, balance, scoring and size. It will take a great effort on our part to compete with them."
BLAZING A FAMILIAR TRAIL
Despite the loss to Kentucky, UAB's program is clearly headed in the right direction. The Blazers, who finished the season 24-7 and ended the regular season in the Top 25, have been to the NCAA tournament three consecutive years.
They play an up-tempo, chaotic, pressing style that the program likes to call "The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball." It's a derivation of the "40 Minutes of Hell," made famous by Nolan Richardson and his national champion Razorbacks of the mid-90s.
UAB's similarity in playing style to those Arkansas teams is no coincidence. Blazers Coach Mike Anderson played for Richardson at Tulsa 25 years ago and then joined him as a long-time assistant. UAB hired Anderson in 2002 and since that time has gone an impressive 89-40.
Richardson was in attendance in Philadelphia Friday night wearing a "Go Blazers" pin.
"Mike's put his own touches on the system but all the basics are the same," Richardson said. "They might call it the fastest 40 minutes,' but I call it Part II. I've always said Part II is better than Part I."
Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in Sporting News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He is covering the tournament exclusively for Yahoo! Sports from Philadelphia this week and Washington, D.C., next week.
Updated on Saturday, Mar 18, 2006 3:01 am, EST