It was only fitting Connecticut concluded its decade of dominance in the Big East with an impressive championship game.
The Huskies won their second straight conference tournament title with an 82-63 victory over St. John's on Saturday night. It was their third championship in the last four years and their fourth of the '90s, twice what any other school managed in that time.
It was the fifth time in the last six years that the third-ranked Huskies (28-2) entered the tournament as the top seed and they have a 15-6 record in the league championships this decade. Connecticut won six of the 10 regular-season titles in the 1990s and the tournament championship is the fourth for coach Jim Calhoun, putting him behind only the six won by John Thompson at Georgetown.
"It means an awful lot of good players have come to the University of Connecticut," Calhoun said. "From Chris Smith and Scott Burrell to Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall, Travis Knight to Khalid, Kevin and Rip. I've been blessed to have some tremendous players play for us. Good players find ways to win games. Personally, being an Eastern guy, it's very special but we've been blesssed to have had some tremendous athletes play the way we have asked them to play."
Maybe more important than capping its impressive 10-year period in the Big East, the win over the third-seeded and 10th-ranked Red Storm at Madison Square Garden ended any doubts about the Huskies being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
It also had them looking a lot more like the team that was ranked No. 1 for 10 weeks this season rather than the one that had weathered a February that saw them struggle with their shooting as two-time Big East player of the year Richard "Rip" Hamilton overcame a leg injury.
"Two things have happened," Calhoun said in explaining the return to form. "The kids understood the energy situation of what we need and second, e've gotten healthy. Richard Hamilton is a much better player than he was a week ago."
Connecticut started the game with a 13-0 run that looked like an edited highlight film. After missing their first shot of the game, the Huskies made their next six -- the first three by Hamilton -- while forcing three turnovers.
Only 2:42 had elapsed and St. John's (25-8) called a 20-second timeout.
"We knew we had to come out and have a fast start, get the adrenaline, the energy, the momentum on our side," point guard Khalid El-Amin said. "We knew we had to do that and we played some good defense and made some nice passess."
"We missed a couple of shots and they blocked anything else," St. John's coach Mike Jarvis said. "What else can I say? We didn't score so it was 13-0."
The lead was 34-17 with 5:03 left when Souleymane Wane tipped in a missed shot. The Red Storm, who were making their first championship game appearance since 1986, used a 10-0 run to get within 34-27 with 55 seconds left. Bootsy Thornton capped the run with a 3-pointer and 16 seconds later Hamilton answered with a 3, the Huskies' first points in 4:42.
The lead was 40-29 at halftime when El-Amin hit a 27-footer at the buzzer as he was falling down.
"Coach drew up that one and it worked perfectly," El-Amin said.
"When we were down 17 we started talking about getting it under 10, let's get it under 10 going into halftime and we did," Jarvis said. "Then he hit the 3 and now it's 11 so it's not under 10 anymore and it makes a huge difference."
| The Huskies had their way with St. John's Saturday night. (AP)|
The Huskies started the second half with an 11-0 run, the Red Storm taking a 20-second timeout after just 1:58 this time. The spectacular plays continued as the lead increased to as much as 60-26 with 11:41 left on a layup by Rashamel Jones.
"The kind of energy we showed at the start of the game and the second half is what we have to show next week," Calhoun said. "We talked to the kids a great deal about playing with a great deal of passion this time of year because if in fact someone is good enough to beat you make sure they beat you and you don't lose the game."
Hamilton finished with 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting, while El-Amin had 15 points, Jones 11 and tournament MVP Kevin Freeman nine, giving him 52 for the three games. The Huskies shot 55 percent (30-for-55).
"We took it upon ourselves that the only way we were going to win was to play together and that's what we did," Hamilton said.
Ths was the seventh time in the 20 Big East championship games that both teams were ranked in the Top Ten and it's only the second time there has been a repeat champion as Georgetown won in 1984 and 1985.
Erick Barkley, the hero of the semifinal win over No. 9 Miami, had 18 points for St. John's, while Thornton had 17 and Artest 14.
"I can say now that 32 out of 33 games we had a chance to win," Jarvis said. "We certainly didn't play as well as we would have liked to but thank God our season still has life in it and we're going to play a lot more basketball.. Like all the other losses this year this was tough but it was a little bit different in that we didn't have a chance to win this one."
Connecticut, which has won nine of 10, beat St. John's 78-74 in the only regular-season meeting.
St. John's, which came in having won eight of nine, has won two league championships, 1983 and 1986.
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