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Upstart Connecticut denies Duke a basketball crown

University of Connecticut. National college basketball champs. 1999. Looks funny. Sounds funny. Is funny - unless you're Duke University.

After all, someone who should know said the other day that Duke "clearly is the best college basketball team in the nation." That someone was Jim Calhoun, the UConn coach.

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When asked how it felt to be in the championship against Duke, Calhoun said he was "tickled." That sounded a lot like: "We know we can't win, but second is real good for us."

In truth, second would have been really good for UConn, a team used to being thought of occasionally as a worthy contender but more often as an unworthy contender. It has been in the NCAA tournament 21 times but never to the Final Four. The Huskies overall tournament record was a ho-hum 22-20 prior to arriving here. Conversely, Duke has been in the Final Four 12 times and arrived here with a sparkling tournament record of 64-20.

The only people seriously thinking UConn might win were the discombobulated, the addled, the basketball-challenged, the fools, and those who had not been out in a while. All the brilliant folks knew this was a Duke pushover in the making that would be a slam dunk in the execution. Hello, dynasty.

Then came UConn's amazing 77-74 triumph March 29 over a stunned Duke team. "I think the Duke fans couldn't believe it," said Huskies guard Khalid El-Amin. It was achieved mainly with a suffocating defense that caused high numbers of Blue Devils shots to be taken under withering pressure. Forget the Duke dynasty hooey.

"They're good, we're good," insisted unbowed Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski.

UConn's wondrous and beautifully schemed win ranks in the minds of many as the biggest upset ever in the title game. It was more upsetting than Villanova, an eighth seed, thumping No. 1 seed Georgetown in 1985, sixth seed North Carolina taking No. 1 Houston in 1983, or sixth seed Kansas beating No. 1 Oklahoma in 1988.

That's because while Duke (37-2) and UConn (34-2) were the only two to be ranked No. 1 in the polls all season, Duke was widely perceived as being way farther up the food chain than the Huskies. Indeed, chatter centered on whether Duke just might be the best team ever, surpassing all those starry UCLA, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Kentucky teams.

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To chronicle Duke's excellence this season is to wallow in the extraordinary. It led the nation in scoring. During the regular season, the Blue Devils were so dominant - "the most dominant team in college basketball for a number of years," said someone, who again turned out to be Calhoun - that it wasn't much fun to watch. Duke beat Wake Forest by 42. Its average winning margin was a best-in-the-nation 25 points. A victory March 29 would have given the Blue Devils 38 wins this year, an NCAA record.

Duke appeared to be a team without a single weakness, real or imagined. Among the galaxy of stars was Elton Brand, only a sophomore and already the nation's Player of the Year. The only problem was having too many extraordinary players. One, freshman Corey Maggette, who is a planet in his own universe, played less than 18 minutes in each 40-minute game.

Shortly before the finals, Calhoun said that at UConn, "We have chosen to try for excellence. Ecstasy is what we're looking for."

They found it.

The scintillating game was back-and-forth all evening with neither team ever gaining an advantage of any scope. The effort was world class. With 4:07 left, the contest was tied. Duke's Trajan Langdon repeatedly hit aggressively contested shots as he gunned in 25. Ditto UConn's Richard Hamilton, who ended with 27. Heavyweights were slugging it out, taking the other's best shots, then regaining the offensive.

With 20 seconds left, UConn ahead by one, Duke got the ball. It was in Langdon's enormously capable hands. Harassed by the Huskies defensive whiz, Ricky Moore, Langdon committed a traveling violation with 5.4 seconds left as he headed for what was shaping up as the winning hoop.

"That's the way the game goes," said Langdon later. Krzyzewski agreed: "The ball was in our best player's hands with an opportunity to win the game. That's exactly what I wanted."

Calhoun said on the eve of the title game that Duke wasn't hard to prepare for, just difficult to play. But Hamilton, El-Amin & Co. (the two principals scored 26 of UConn's 40 second-half points, including the final 11) were spectacularly up to the chore.

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