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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

UConn Pulls 'Rip' Cord, Lands Safely

East Regional: Hamilton's buzzer-beating shot eliminates Washington, 75-74, and sends his team to final against top-seeded North Carolina.

March 20, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — There was a miss, a tip, a miss and a tip, and Richard Hamilton let it rip.

With eight-tenths of a second left in Connecticut's season if somebody didn't do something quickly, Richard "Rip" Hamilton finally got his hands solidly on the ball and hit the softest little three-foot jumper from the lane a fraction of a second before the buzzer, killing Washington's near-upset with a 75-74 victory.

Pandemonium erupted on the court and in corners of half-empty Greensboro Coliseum, and Connecticut advanced to the NCAA East Regional final Saturday against top-seeded North Carolina.

Washington, a team that barely made the NCAA tournament but nearly made the final eight, was going home.

Washington junior guard Donald Watts, who made the coolest, calmest three-point basket with 33 seconds left for a 74-73 Washington lead, wandered away from the celebration and climbed into the stands where his father, former NBA guard Slick Watts, wrapped his hands around his son's head.

"You know what, in college sports there is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I told him, 'Don't worry, you made a big shot, you played hard, 40 minutes,' " Slick Watts said, resplendent in a purple Washington sport coat. "I told him to be like a soldier. The sports gods weren't with us."

The wrenching thing was it wasn't the first time for Washington, which lost to Stanford on a buzzer-beater earlier this season, coming just that close to upsetting the then-undefeated Cardinal.

"We've been in that situation before, and we didn't want it to happen again," Donald Watts said, as he stood, wet-eyed but soldierly in the locker room. "When it happened, at that moment, you're thinking, God, is this really happening again?

"But we can't let a loss like this put a gloom on the season. We achieved a lot. We were in the Sweet 16, but we wanted to be in the Elite Eight, the Final Four. I'm just fortunate I have an opportunity to come back and do it again."

Watts finished with 22 points, as did Connecticut's Hamilton.

Connecticut (32-4) is the second-seeded team in the East, but nearly was upended by the 11th-seeded team.

Connecticut led by eight points at halftime and by nine with 10 minutes left. But Washington kept fighting back.

Washington (20-10) got the lead down to seven on Deon Luton's fastbreak dunk, and five on two free throws by Watts. It was three after a layup by center Todd MacCulloch and a single point with 7 1/2 minutes left after Patrick Femerling's jumper.

But Connecticut came back with a three-pointer by Hamilton and two free throws by Jake Voskuhl, and managed to barely stay in front until, with half a minute left, Watts sank that three, calm as anything.

An upset was on tap, with most of the pro-North Carolina crowd gone home and the clock after midnight.

After a timeout, Connecticut's freshman point guard, Khalid El-Amin, took the ball at the top of the key and waited for the clock to run down to 10 seconds. Voskuhl came up to set a screen, El-Amin drove and dumped to Voskuhl, who missed. Hamilton missed, and the ball was tipped around frantically before Hamilton got it again, and sank it.

"It just happened to come to me. I got my hands set, and I knew it was going in," Hamilton said. "The five guys and the people on the bench said that they refused to lose.

"When everybody puts their minds together, anything can happen. The ball just came to me. I gathered myself, let the ball go, and it went in."

The Connecticut bench went wild, pouring onto the court. "In a season of buzzer-beaters, we add our name to the list," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said. "I guess we wanted to be included in everything, so we included ourselves in buzzer-beaters.

"My congratulations to Washington. We kept getting ahead, kept getting up by six or seven, but we couldn't shake them because they didn't want to lose and they hustled after loose balls."

They hustled to the end, but couldn't control those Connecticut rebounds.

"It definitely stings," MacCulloch said. "It stings. They played a heck of a game, but we were capable of winning. It's hard to look at right now, but we've got nothing to be ashamed of."

Connecticut moves on--and a lot of fans missed a heck of a finish.

"I figure that's on them," El-Amin said. "They chose to leave. I'm pretty sure those were Carolina fans who left. We're right where we want to be. We have a lot of respect for Carolina, but from the day the pairings came out, that's who we wanted to play. We want to play the best."

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