Connecticut and Gonzaga early risers

With 4 in top 10, Maui tests elite

November 26, 2005|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

Lahaina, Hawaii -- About a week before the Maui Invitational began, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun boasted in his thick New England accent that he has the best frontcourt in the country and the Player of the Year in Rudy Gay.

But third-ranked UConn was out-rebounded and Gay was held to 10 points in the championship game. The Huskies were also without suspended point guard Marcus Williams.

And they still won.

But runner-up Gonzaga didn't have its entire roster, either. Two key forwards were injured, and only two points separated these teams in the final second of Wednesday's title game at the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center.

Their respective finishes among an eight-team field that included six former national champions and four Top 10 teams made an early national statement that, for Gonzaga and UConn, March might not be as far away as it seems.

"The good thing about this loss is it's only November," said Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison, who was named Most Valuable Player on the All-Tournament team for his three-game averages of 28.7 points and seven rebounds. "It's early. We can get better. I think we learned we can make stops now. We can out-rebound people now. We know we can play with anybody. We know we can make stops now and battle on the glass with anybody."

Senior forward Erroll Knight, one of the Bulldogs' top defenders, underwent arthoscopic surgery earlier this month, and forward Josh Heytvelt broke his left ankle in the first half against Connecticut. He'll likely be out for the rest of the season.

The Bulldogs lost, 65-63, when all-tournament selection Denham Brown hit a turnaround jumper with 1.1 seconds remaining. Calhoun said Brown stepped up when Gay didn't.

Against Arizona, Gay scored six points and had five turnovers. The Archbishop Spalding graduate was last of the tournament leaders with an average of 14.7 points.

"Generally speaking, our frontcourt gives you a lot of problems," said Calhoun, whose team averaged 4.3 blocked shots in the tournament. "And I think Rudy is going to be as good a player as there is in the country. I'm not going to measure everything that happened here on our season because we expect to go back to practice on Friday and get better at things we didn't do."

The talent level in this tournament was so evenly matched, that the championship game might not have been the best of the three days.

Maryland coach Gary Williams was trying to concentrate on game film of Arkansas, his final opponent in the tournament, but said he "had to watch" the seemingly never-ending game between No. 12 Michigan State and No. 8 Gonzaga on Tuesday.

The teams went into triple overtime before Gonzaga won, 109-106. Morrison set a tournament record with 43 points, including the final two free throws with 19 seconds remaining that gave the Bulldogs a 107-106 lead. Michigan State freshman Goran Suton was left in tears after he missed a layup with 4.6 seconds left.

"That's as good as it gets there," Williams said. " ... That's college basketball. You can say whatever you want about the NBA, and it is a great game with the best players, but that emotion, that wanting to win by both of those teams is just incredible in college basketball."

Tuesday's matchup between the Spartans and the Bulldogs had Final Four flair. Michigan State, which finished 2-1 here, led all eight teams in scoring offense with 89.7 points a game. Maurice Ager, who was second only to Morrison in scoring average with 26.3 points, was the only player named to the all-tournament team who wasn't on Gonzaga's or Connecticut's roster. After the triple-overtime game against Gonzaga, the Spartans took No. 9 Arizona to overtime before winning, 74-71.

"We showed we're not quite ready to play against some of the top ones, but the same thing happened last year with us," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. " ... I think what it showed is that we're a team that has a chance to be very good. It's a matter of what we do with what we've learned here."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he learned a lesson about scheduling. He brought his team to Hawaii a day earlier to face the University of Hawaii, which surprised his Spartans with an 84-62 win. In all, his team finished with a 2-2 record in Hawaii.

"Don't underestimate - please don't underestimate - what they've been through in the last five days," Izzo said. "There was stupidity in scheduling on this one. I don't mind scheduling great teams, but to play that extra game before was stupidity on my part."

"If there were any letdowns here, it wasn't from lack of heart or character," he said. "It was from a lack of whatever is left in the battery, because there's nothing left in that battery right now."

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said his team didn't need this tournament to prove anything.

"I think we consider ourselves elite competition," he said. "We have for several years now. We came in here thinking if we played very good we'd win this tournament. We played pretty darn good, and we almost won the tournament."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

Nicholls State@No. 23 Maryland

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