Washington, D.C. notebook: Huskies still have lives
By Greg Abel, Special to Yahoo! sports
March 25, 2006
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The phrase "survive and advance" comes up often during the NCAA men's basketball tournament and no team has done that quite like Connecticut this March.
"This team has incredible heart," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun.
Best illustrating that heart was Rashad Anderson. With Connecticut down three and two seconds left on the clock, Anderson launched the tying basket to force overtime – a shot he later said "was good the second it left my hand." In the extra period, as UConn pulled away, Anderson banged his fist against his heart, illustrating his coach's point and his team's will to win.
"I just knew in that situation I've got to knock it down," he said of the game-tying shot.
To get it off, point guard Marcus Williams ran what Anderson called a dribble screen, literally handing the ball to Anderson as Williams shielded the defender. The help came too late and Anderson, as he has done more than 250 times in his career, added three points to the scoreboard to tie a game that Connecticut appeared destined to lose.
"I told Marcus, hand off,' that's the play we always do in practice, or the play we always do late at night in the gym," Anderson said.
It was just the latest in a string of official, if a bit unconvincing, wins by the talented but flawed Huskies, as Calhoun likes to call his team. Friday night's flaws, for example, included a season-high 26 turnovers.
Throughout this tournament, Calhoun has used every opportunity to remind the media that even though his team includes a bunch of guys who will cash NBA paychecks in the not-too-distant future, only one of them is a point guard and steady ball handler. That would be Williams, who was brilliant again with 26 points and eight assists, though he did have seven turnovers.
"I've been saying all along that we have one point guard and a bunch of wings," Calhoun said. "They are great wings, but there isn't another ball handler among them."
While Connecticut has been a team that has relied on various stars throughout the season and tournament, Brandon Roy has been Washington's unquestioned leader. But Friday, the leader had to sit out an extended period of time in the second half after picking up his third foul on a hand check against Rudy Gay (and then a technical) with 14 minutes left in the game.
Here's what happened: Gay came off of a screen and Roy was called for holding him. As the play ended, Roy felt that Gay shoved him in the ribs and said something about it. The players then exchanged words, though it seemed Gay did most of the talking. Both were hit with technical fouls, and that counted as Roy's fourth personal foul. At the time, Washington led by eight. When he came back in the game seven minutes later, Connecticut had cut the lead to two.
"It was a mistake by me, me being a leader of this team," said Roy, who scored 20 in the game. "I have to avoid situations like that. I have to take it on the chin and try to grow from it."
UW coach Lorenzo Romar said that Roy's comments about the situation and his overall play on the night reveal what a great person and player the future NBA lottery pick has become.
"He comes out today, scores 20 points and says, Hey, I let my teammates down,' " Romar said. "You have so many athletes today that want to point the finger and say, Well, they didn't get me the ball down the stretch, that's why we lost.' Or Coach wouldn't let me play my game.'
"Here's a guy who has done it all and says, I let my teammates down' because of the technical foul. He's a great person, with great character, a man of great substance."
Throughout the game, and particularly with Roy on the bench in foul trouble, fellow senior Jamaal Williams picked up the scoring slack for Washington. Williams used an array of pivot moves and turnaround jump shots to frustrate the taller but less agile Connecticut defenders for 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting.
"We lost," Williams said, when asked to reflect on his big game. "I'd rather trade that in and score five points and get a win."
When the final buzzer sounded, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga ran to the school's cheering section, pointed his fingers in the air to thank the crowd, and hugged anyone he could get his hands on.
Shooting guard Lamar Butler put up five fingers with one hand and three in the other to indicate eight, as in Elite Eight, and the crowd at the Verizon Center generally went bonkers and tried to come to grips with what just happened.
What happened was that George Mason, little known, lightly regarded George Mason, had just won a game, rather convincingly at that, to reach the final eight of the NCAA Tournament.
"We're having so much fun," Larranaga said. "It's not like we're in a situation where we're nervous or have any kind of fear. These guys have played basketball their whole lives. They enjoy being with each other and they enjoy executing the plan on the court. As long as we can just continue to do that, anything is possible."
In beating Wichita State 63-55, Mason controlled the game throughout and earned a date with Connecticut on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.
Afterward, players reflected on the relaxed and loose atmosphere that their coach has fostered, an atmosphere that has allowed them to play so well this March.
"We're just having fun," Butler said. "Nobody in their lifetime thought we could do this. Coach already does a great job of keeping us loose in practice, dancing, singing, clapping. We were loose tonight and there was no tension whatsoever throughout this team."
So, can George Mason take out Connecticut and keep this thing going to Indianapolis?
"The way we're playing right now, it doesn't matter who we play," said guard Tony Skinn, who scored 14 points, 12 in the first half, as Mason established a double-digit lead. "I am just loving every single moment of it."
MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF
Like the team he plays for, not many fans had heard of Patriots forward Will Thomas prior to this year's tournament. But, in three games, Thomas has guarded and outplayed, in succession, Michigan State's Paul Davis, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Wichita State's Paul Miller, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year.
"Whew, those are some big names," Thomas said after the game, reflecting on his accomplishments of the past two weeks. Thomas scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds Friday night against Wichita State. He had his biggest game against Michigan State, with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
"This is just a great feeling," he said. "It is out of my mind, I don't even know what to say. It is out of my hands."
Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in The Sporting News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He is covering the Washington, D.C. regional exclusively for Yahoo! Sports.
Updated on Saturday, Mar 25, 2006 3:59 am, EST