Jim Calhoun and Connecticut like being in the Final Four so much, they decided to stay awhile.
In their first trip to the national semifinals, the Huskies and Richard Hamilton stopped Ohio State's amazing run of upsets and held off a late surge by the Buckeyes for a 64-58 victory Saturday.
No, it wasn't easy, but UConn's journeys in the NCAA tournament never, ever are. Leading by 10 points with less than 12 minutes left, the Huskies managed to hold on.
Think Calhoun cares? Crushed by heartbreaking losses so many times, he's delighted to finally get a shot at his first national title.
"That sounds awfully good," Calhoun said, soaking in the words "championship game." "Can you say it again please?"
Seeking redemption for all those great Connecticut teams this decade whose March hunger went unrequited, the Huskies (33-2) play the winner of the Duke-Michigan State game Monday night.
Hamilton had 24 points in one of the best games of his career, including a hanging, double-clutch jumper that stopped the Buckeyes' comeback attempt in the final two minutes.
"One thing my father always told me was, stay relaxed," Hamilton said. Assistant coach Karl Hobbs "always tells me, `This could be your last 40 minutes of the year.' They've been telling us that every game since we started in the NCAA tournament."
OSU point guard Scoonie Penn, hounded by defensive specialist Ricky Moore, was 3-for-13 with 11 points. Michael Redd had 15 points for the Buckeyes (27-9), who couldn't duplicate the upset heroics that got them past St. John's and Auburn.
"This was a long, tough season and I am very encouraged and very proud," Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien said. "We had a terrific season and hopefully we will build from here."
Penn and O'Brien, who resurrected the program from an 8-22 season after coming from Boston College, ell just short in their bid to play leading roles in one of the biggest comeback stories in college basketball history.
Incredibly, it was O'Brien's 19th consecutive loss to Calhoun and the Huskies, going back to his years at Boston College.
UConn point guard Khalid El-Amin recovered from his 0-for-12 game against Gonzaga with 18 points and six assists. But it was Hamilton, the quick, crafty slasher, who gave Calhoun the kind of performance he's probably always dreamed of in the Final Four.
"They seized that moment," Calhoun said, referring to his talented guards. "I told them before the game that this was our moment, and they made the plays of the moment."
Hamilton's biggest basket came just as the Buckeyes were trying to cut UConn's lead to less than six points. Alone on the perimeter with Redd, Hamilton drove to the foul line and sank a sensational, double-clutch jumper that went it as the shot clock sounded.
The Buckeyes, who came back from a 10-point deficit in the first half, scrambled to do it again. But after Penn hit 2-of-3 free throws, Hamilton blocked Penn's 3-point shot. Redd missed a 3-pointer, and Penn threw up a desperation airball as the Huskies maintained a 63-58 lead with 25 seconds left.
Moore, who shut down Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves and Stanford's Arthur Lee this season, rarely was more than an arm's length away from Penn.
"I was hoping he would get up off me or turn his head the wrong way," said Penn, wearing No. 35 because his usual No. 12 got lost somehow. "He did a great job on me the whole game."
The Huskies lost in a regional final in 1990, 1995 and 1998 and have never gotten this far in the NCAA tournament. Now, a tough team rollicking with confidence seems determined to forget the ghosts of Christian Laettner, North Carolina, UCLA and Mississippi State, all recent postseason enemies.
With El-Amin as their emotional leader a quick, pudgy player-coach who runs all over the floor the Huskies fear no one.
"I don't think anyone fears Duke," said El-Amin, asked to look ahead to the potential opponent. "No one will be scared of Duke if they win."
UConn led 51-41 with 11:48 left on a layup by Rashamel Jones off an alley-oop pass from El-Amin. It followed a wild miss by Penn, who forced a driving layup on one of the rare occasions when Moore gave him just the slightest bit of room.
Ohio State cut it to 59-55 on a free throw by Penn with 2:53 left. But the Buckeyes, whose 27-9 record is one of the biggest turnarounds in the sport's history, were crushed by Hamilton's jumper.
| Khalid El-Amin had 18 points ad six assists to lead UConn to the title game. (AP)|
El-Amin, the heart and soul of the Huskies whose first name means "Sword of God," ran to halfcourt and leaped into the arms of Jones as Calhoun motioned for them to calm down.
Ohio State put an emphatic stamp on the first half with two blocks and some trash talk in the final seconds. Ken Johnson swatted Edmund Saunders with 1.1 seconds left, and Hamilton forced up a shot on the inbounds play and was blocked by Jason Singleton as the Huskies led 36-35 at halftime.
Penn ran over and bumped chests with Singleton, but Hamilton took exception. A referee separated the players, and Penn ran off the court but not before pointing and shouting in the direction of Hamilton.
Using their frantic defense to run out on fast breaks, the Huskies stunned Ohio State with a dizzying 14-3 run to take a 32-22 lead with 7:19 left in the half. Hamilton had nine points during the sprint, but the most sensational play came from El-Amin.
After stealing the ball, El-Amin pushed it ahead and split two defenders near halfcourt. As he approached the foul line, he whipped a laser-like pass behind his back to Kevin Freeman for a layup and three-point play.
The Buckeyes went on an 11-0 run, including a dunk by Redd and layups by Brian Brown on a sensational pass from Redd and by Singleton off a steal.
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