Matchup at point is key to who rises in the East UConn's El-Amin savors challenge vs. UNC's Cota

East Regional

March 21, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Two weeks ago on Selection Sunday, precocious Connecticut point guard Khalid El-Amin looked at the NCAA tournament's East Regional bracket and made this one-word wish:

"Cota."

That would be Ed Cota, the extraordinary point guard for top-ranked North Carolina.

The wish comes true tonight when No. 2 seed Connecticut (32-4) gets the No. 1 seed Tar Heels (33-3) -- and Cota -- in the East Regional championship game at Greensboro Coliseum.

"The first time I saw him on TV against Duke, I said I'd like to play him," El-Amin said yesterday of the matchup that could determine which team reaches the Final Four.

"He's considered one of the best. I like to match up with the best. I think I can present some problems for him."

If Cota won his reputation during Carolina's 1997 run to the Final Four, El-Amin, a freshman, has been busy crafting one of his own this season. He is among the new breed of scoring point guard.

Through 36 games, he is averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 2.8 turnovers for the Huskies. It was enough to earn Rookie of the Year honors in the Big East Conference. Now comes the acid test.

"I respect him as a player," El-Amin said of Cota. "I'll try to put pressure on him and try to score. He doesn't play a lot of point guards who try to attack and score."

As it turns out, Cota just devoured one of them Thursday night. Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves -- the Big Ten's Player of the Year -- got his 18 points against Cota. But he shot a ragged 7-for-21 and never found any offensive rhythm in a 73-58 loss to Carolina in the regional semifinals.

Cota, of course, has been forewarned that he is a target for the game's young guns.

"They might be gunning for me," he said. "[But] I feel I'm a better point guard. It really doesn't make any difference if they want to come after me."

In search of their first berth in the Final Four, the Huskies will come after the Tar Heels at a sprint. Never mind that Carolina is as proficient in fast-break basketball as any team playing. Connecticut will play to its strength.

"We're going to run and attack them because we think that's one of our strengths," El-Amin said. "If we can get into a Connecticut-style game -- running and attacking on defense -- then I think we've got a great opportunity to win."

If the Huskies are able to run with the Tar Heels, will they also be able to rebound with them? That's an even bigger question. Carolina crushed Michigan State on the glass, 51-33, and the Spartans were one of the nation's best rebounding teams.

"I think those guys play very physical," Carolina's Antawn Jamison said of the Huskies, "but I think if we can attack the boards, they might be in trouble a bit."

Jamison averages 23.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. Ademola Okulaja averages 5.6 boards, Vince Carter 5.3 and Makhtar Ndiaye 4.3.

Connecticut leans heavily on 6-11 center Jake Voskuhl (7.2 rebounds) and 6-7 power forward Kevin Freeman (6.6). Reserves Souleymane Wane, at 6-11, and Antric Klaiber, at 6-10, could see increased playing time as well.

The Huskies were pressed to the limit to get past upstart Washington in the semifinals. It took a last-second, 8-foot fall-away jumper by Richard Hamilton to squeeze out a 75-74 victory, UConn's 11th straight win and 16th in their past 17

games.

But the Huskies had little left in the second half against Washington, and the question now is how much can they muster for Carolina in an arena that has become like the Tar Heels' second home?

"When you want to compete at the highest level, eventually you'll aspire to be the hunted," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. ** "Unfortunately, [tonight] we're the hunter in the hunted's forest. We have 40 minutes to be the best we can be."

It's just the way El-Amin would want it.

East Regional final

At Greensboro, N.C.

No. 1 seed North Carolina (33-3)

vs. No. 2 Connecticut (32-4)

Time: 6 p.m. today

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: North Carolina by 10

Conference records: North Carolina (13-3) was second in the ACC and won the conference tournament. Connecticut (15-3) won the regular-season and tournament titles in the Big East.

Coaches: Bill Guthridge is 33-3 in his first season at North Carolina; Jim Calhoun is 270-117 in 12 seasons at UConn, 520-254 in 26 seasons overall.

Starting lineups: North Carolina: PG Ed Cota (8.3 ppg, 7.6 apg), G Shammond Williams (17.5 ppg, 4.4 apg), F Vince Carter (16.0 (( ppg, 5.3 rpg), F Antawn Jamison (23.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg), C Makhtar Ndiaye (6.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg). Connecticut: PG Khalid El-Amin (15.8 ppg, 4.3 apg), G Ricky Moore (7.7 ppg, 3.5 apg), F Richard Hamilton (21.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg), F Kevin Freeman (10.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg), C Jake Voskuhl (6.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg).

Bench strength: North Carolina: F Ademola Okulaja (8.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg). Connecticut: G Monquencio Hardnett (5.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg), F Rashamel Jones (4.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg).

Key matchup: Carter vs. Hamilton at small forward.

What North Carolina needs to do to win: Play with the same defensive intensity it had against Michigan State, and hold the Huskies to one shot on offense.

What Connecticut needs to do to win: Get a better shooting game from El-Amin, who shot 32.5 percent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc in his past two tourney games. The weary Huskies also need to use their bench to the maximum and crash the offensive boards to get second shots.

Bottom line: UConn has played sluggishly in each of its three tournament games and was able to slip by each time. There will be no such reprieve against Carolina. The Huskies need their absolute best game from El-Amin and Hamilton to run with the Tar Heels. It would seem Calhoun is one year away from that elusive Final Four berth.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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