UConn has plenty of fight left

Jason King
Yahoo! Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. – After the high-fives and the hugs and the trophies and the tears – after the Connecticut basketball team had advanced to the Final Four – someone approached Jim Calhoun as he was posing for a picture on the court of the University of Phoenix Stadium.

"Coach," the man said, "it's time to cut down the nets."

Calhoun glanced toward the ladder resting on the baseline, smiled and walked away.

"We'll do it next week," the Hall of Fame coach said over his shoulder. "We'll take care of that in Detroit."

Bold as the statement may have been, no one could blame Calhoun for showing a little extra swagger following Connecticut's 82-75 victory over Missouri in the Elite Eight. Guard Kemba Walker scored 23 points off the bench, and the Huskies shot 50.9 percent against the Tigers' vaunted press to advance to the Final Four for the third time in school history.

Connecticut – which won the national title in 1999 and 2004 – will face either Louisville or Michigan State on Saturday in Detroit.

"We just shut a lot of people up," forward Jeff Adrien said.

Connecticut has certainly had its share of doubters over the past few weeks, and for good reason.

A February knee injury ended the season of starting guard Jerome Dyson, and a few weeks later the program made national news when Calhoun lashed out at a political activist that questioned his seven-figure salary.

Health problems forced Calhoun to watch UConn's first NCAA tournament game from a hospital bed. Then, on Wednesday, an article by Yahoo! Sports alleged the Huskies' coaching staff committed various NCAA violations during its recruitment of former Connecticut guard Nate Miles.

Rather than talking about basketball, Calhoun spent much of last week answering questions about the report and the forthcoming NCAA investigation that it triggered. None of the adversity, though, seems to be affecting the Huskies when it matters most.

"There are so many things we've gone through and fought through – just like Coach Calhoun," Adrien said. "He's been through so many things in his life. We learned from one of the best."

Calhoun couldn't have done a better job of preparing his team for Missouri. The thought was that, without Dyson, the Huskies wouldn't have enough poised, savvy guards to handle the Tigers' full-court, "Forty Minutes of Hell" defense.

"Their press was crazy," forward Stanley Robinson said. "I've never seen a press like that in my life. It can get you out of what you want to do – and they don't ever get tired."

Connecticut committed 17 turnovers but still managed to make half of its shots from the field. The Huskies were also 26-of-32 from the foul stripe while out-rebounding Missouri 45-26.

"They couldn't get any second shots," forward Hasheem Thabeet said.

The biggest difference, though, was Walker. The freshman from the Bronx scored 14 of his points after intermission and only turned the ball over twice against Missouri's pressure. Even more damaging than his five assists was the hanging, double-pump jumper he banked in that extended UConn's lead to 70-65 with 2:07 remaining.

Missouri – which was hoping for its first Final Four berth in school history – never threatened again.

"Way to grow up, freshman" senior guard A.J. Price said to Walker after the game. "Way to grow up."

Most of the Huskies formed a circle and danced on the court following Saturday's victory before climbing onto a stage for the regional final trophy presentation. One by one, the key members of the team hoisted the hardware into the air as cameras flashed. Each of them, it seemed, had a story.

There was Robinson, who worked his way back onto the team after withdrawing from school during a fall semester that was spent working at a scrap metal plan.

There was Price, the senior leader who fought through a brain hemorrhage that nearly cost him his career and a suspension for theft that almost cost him his reputation.

Dyson posed with the trophy, too, and so did Thabeet – the 7-foot-3 center who arrived at Connecticut from Tanzania after playing just a few years of organized basketball. Thabeet's first attempt at earning a college scholarship came when he bought a few hours of time at an Internet café in his native country and emailed college coaches in the United States.

Four years later, Thabeet will likely be a top-10 pick in this summer's NBA draft – and, perhaps, an NCAA champion. Tears streamed down Thabeet's cheeks as he hugged Calhoun.

"He's helped me so much," Thabeet said. "Growing up as a player, I used to think he was picking on me. I used to say, 'Wow! Why me?' He always told me, 'You're not just going to be a good player. You're going to be something really special.' "

Thabeet, whose mother traveled to the United States to watch her son play in the NCAA tournament, has Saturday's game ball tucked away in his locker.

"That's my dream ball," he said. "I'll keep that until I get old."

Thabeet may soon have another ball to add to his collection. The Huskies' likely opponent in the national semifinals is a Louisville squad it defeated by 17 points earlier this season. If UConn (31-4) gets by the Cardinals it would face either Villanova or the winner of Sunday's game between North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Whoever the Huskies face, they'll be hard-pressed to match the scrappiness and intensity that Missouri displayed Saturday.

Adrien's postgame interview session was twice interrupted by doctors examining a gash under his lip. Robinson had slashes across his arms and chest, and Thabeet underwent X-rays on a finger that was jammed and bloodied.

"I'm getting it checked out, but I should be good," Thabeet said. "It was a war out there. They said they wanted to run us, and I guess we're still running now. We're still running all the way to Detroit."

Where the Final Four – and a pair of scissors – awaits.

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