Only Duke could beat Duke, or so we thought.
In one of the biggest NCAA Tournament championship game upsets in history, the University of Connecticut -- now better known as U-Conn't-Miss -- turned deadly sharpshooters and knocked off the heavily favored Duke Blue Devils 77-74 before 41,340 fans at Tropicana Field.
After Duke senior leader Trajan Langdon pulled Duke to within 73-72 with a clutch 3-pointer in the final 1:40, Langdon then had the two worst moments of his storied basketball career -- called for traveling on Duke's next-to-last possession, then stumbling and failing to get off a shot in the final 5.2 seconds Â… as time ran out on the Blue Devils.
"I brought the ball up (court) and three people were there. I tried to get off a (17-foot) shot but I got tripped up a little. (The ball) was stripped," said Langdon. "It was a (clean) strip. Everything about the game was clean. We got beat."
It was more what UConn did right than what Duke did wrong, more a game of heroes than a game of goats, more a game of will than a game of chance.
The Huskies pulled off the upset by shooting 51.7 percent against a Duke team that allowed opponents to shoot 36.3 percent in this tournament.
In the end, UConn point guard Khalid El-Amin -- who was grabbed by a security guard during the postgame celebration because the rolly-polly point guard just doesn't look like a basketball player (even in uniform) -- was Mr. Clutch.
El-Amin put up a nifty base-line floater with just six seconds on the shot clock in the final 60 seconds, then sank two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to put Duke in a position to force OT with a 3-pointer.
"The kids were saying that they would rather play Duke than play Michigan State," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "You would think a 'wise head' (referring to himself) would know better, but the kids knew better. The kids were right. We played the right team."
Duke beat Duke. But the Blue Devils had a lot of help from UConn, a 9½-point underdog despite losing only two games (Syracuse and University of Miami) to finish 34-2.
For UConn, it was its first national championship in basketball. For Duke, it was a blown opportunity to win a third national title in the '90s.
How wrong the experts were on this one.
To be considered one of the great college basketball games in history, Duke supposedly just needed a foil. As Ali needed Frazier and Navratilova needed Evert.
They got more than they bargained for.
Instead, Duke came face-to-face with a smart (read: collapsing, switching, doubling down on consensus national Player of the Year Elton Brand) UConn defense Monday night. Duke also came face-to-face with reality ... and a dose of some bad history, a.k.a., those championship game chokers.
There was the '97 Kentucky team ... defending champion lost 84-79 to No. 4 see Arizona in OT.
There was the '91 UNLV team ... defending champ lost 79-77 to eventual new champ Duke, a two-seed, in the Final Four semifinals.
There was the '85 Georgetown team ... defending champion lost 66-64 to No. 8 seed Villanova.
There was the '83 Phi Slamma Jamma team from Houston ... in the Final Four for the second of three years in a row, but beaten 54-52 by No. 6 seed North Carolina State in maybe the wildest of all upsets at the buzzer.
Before seedings, before shot clocks, even before John Wooden, there was the '63 Cincinnati team ... two-time defending champion lost 60-58 to Loyola of Chicago in OT.
Now there's the '99 Duke Blue Devils (37-2), who had a chance to become the winningest team in a season. But they needed to beat UConn.
Mike Krzyzewski again provided such an even keel from the Duke bench that it was difficult, at times, to remember that this was a Duke team that starts three sophomores and a junior, and with a sixth man who is a freshman.
Calhoun, meanwhile, more closely resembled a New York City traffic cop Monday night, sending in one accomplished sub after another, proving the popular myth that Duke's "second team" could win this tournament was just that -- a myth. UConn's bench outscored Duke's 17-8.
"You have to give UConn credit for making big plays throughout the second half, especially the last eight minutes," Krzyzewski said. "Because we made big plays (and lost) Â… it was a possession-for-possession game."
In a game where it was important to send a message early, it was the Blue Devils who went on a 7-0 run early and took a 9-2 lead, which was the biggest lead by either team in the first half.
Throughout this game, Elton Brand, Duke's 6-foot-8 sophomore center, was frustrated by Connecticut's sticky web-like defense. He moved. They moved. He jumped. They bumped.
Brand's frustration was apparent early. But by halftime, Brand -- who had 18 points against Michigan State in the Final Four semis Saturday night -- had only five points on four shots from the field. He was a monster on the boards all night, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds. But at crunch time, he didn't touch the ball.
UConn shooting star Richard Hamilton -- 27 points -- had plenty of help. Guard Ricky Moore, who averaged only 6.6 points in 35 games this season, and just seven points in the tournament, finished with 13 points -- all in the first half.
Security guard or no security guard, El-Amin came up big with 13 points, four assists and four rebounds in 22 minutes. He was in foul trouble throughout the game. Albert Mouring, Edmund Saunders, Souleymane Wane and Rashamel Jones combined for 17 points off the UConn bench.
The matchups, at times, had you scrambling for a scorecard. OK, this wasn't always Celebrity Death Match. It wasn't even Armageddon.
But it was a well-played championshp game, with an O. Henry ending, and one that wasn't difficult all week for the NCAA to hype.
Not only did these teams come into this game with a combined 70-3 record, not only were Duke and UConn the only two teams to hold down No. 1 in the polls this entire season, but this also marked the first meeting of two No. 1 seeds in a NCAA Championship game since North Carolina and Michigan in 1993.
But what we were reminded of Monday night was you still need to play the game.
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