UConn pushed to brink twice, but too soon to write it off

March 20, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA-- --Connecticut spent all yesterday afternoon building leads against Kentucky, then letting them shrink. The Huskies had to fight back Patrick Sparks' second-half outburst, Bobby Perry tripling his season scoring average, and the memory of a close shave two nights earlier in their NCAA tournament opener.

Yet the toughest battle the Huskies fought yesterday at the Wachovia Center was to convince observers that this team - ranked second in the country, seeded first in its region and advanced into every would-be analyst's Final Four - was not underachieving its way toward a big letdown.

"Sometimes you're thrust into a game that all of a sudden evolves entirely differently than all your game plans," coach Jim Calhoun said after his Huskies scuffled their way to a Sweet 16 date in Washington, 87-83. "I thought we could take control of this game, and Kentucky kept fighting back. And that was not in the game plan."

Calhoun and his players - the members of a roster almost too talented and deep for their own good - could have said the same thing Friday night in their first-round scrap against Albany. In fact, they pretty much did. Albany got within striking distance of the first-ever upset of a top seed by a 16th seed. The close call was supposed to have given Connecticut its much-needed wake-up call, its slap in the face.

Maybe it did. But eighth-seeded Kentucky did some slapping of its own yesterday in the second round, and it's clear now that this just might be Connecticut's fate from now on.

"I still think we can beat anybody in America and get to Indianapolis," Calhoun said, "and I also think we can get beat along the way."

After that weekend in Philadelphia, the rest of the country has to be thinking the same way. The Washington bracket is in tatters, with No. 2 seed Tennessee, No. 3 North Carolina and No. 4 Illinois gone - and yet the Huskies did little to convince anyone that they've got an easy ride.

Of course, being a No. 1 seed guarantees nothing. Ask Villanova, which, in front of a home crowd and facing Arizona (like Kentucky, seeded eighth), barely hung on, 82-78, in the Wachovia Center nightcap. But Villanova was considered by some as a "weak" No. 1. Connecticut was, and is, the stone-cold lock No. 1. It also continues, right or wrong, to leave the impression that it is flipping a switch from game to game.

The Huskies nearly didn't flip it in time yesterday. Kentucky was the reverse of Albany, coming on late instead of jumping out early. Down 43-31 at halftime and 58-45 with 13:36 to go, the Wildcats kept hanging around, kept forcing Connecticut mistakes, kept finding Sparks open (19 of his career high-tying 28 points in the second half). Three times in the final three minutes, the Wildcats got within two points and had the building in an uproar.

Yet with Connecticut, it's just a matter of which star would step up when. This time, it was Marcus Williams, the senior point guard, who kept Kentucky at arm's length by scoring 12 of his 20 points in the final 10 minutes, after the Wildcats had closed to within 60-55. His complete control of the tempo, his penetration, his creativity in the lane for himself and his teammates, made the difference.

Rudy Gay, the Archbishop Spalding alum, dominated the first half, was less visible in the second, then hit two big free throws with 3.3 seconds left. Rashad Anderson hit four three-pointers and scored 14 points in the first half, and took only one shot in the second. Hilton Armstrong, with his offensive rebounds of three straight free throw misses down the stretch, had spent the first half in foul trouble.

Nobody had a great game from start to finish. Because they are what they are, it didn't cost them.

"We have to bring our best, and if we have to win games late," Williams said afterward - then paused, and added, "Preferably we'd like to build big leads and execute our offense later on in the game. But if we have to win games like this, then I think we can step up to the challenge and win them."

No. 1 seed or not, Connecticut seems destined to win games just that way - or to try to win them.

Still, if nothing else reminds Connecticut and its followers of the pitfalls awaiting, no matter how loaded the team is, there is this remark by Gay when he was asked how tough it was to get through the tournament's first two games.

"As far as I know, these are the two toughest games of my life," said the sophomore, a participant in last year's second-round upset by North Carolina State, "because I've never been past these two games."

The way Connecticut is playing, it wouldn't be a shock at all if it didn't make it past the next two. Or if it did.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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