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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Connecticut Hopes One More Hoop Dream Can Come True

East Regional: Now that Hamilton has buzzer-beating shot he longed for, Huskies try to fulfill Final Four fantasy.

March 21, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Richard Hamilton dreamed no dreams Thursday night.

That's because he stayed up into the wee hours, waiting to watch his dream on the highlight shows.

Hamilton, incredibly, was one of the few people who still hadn't seen the buzzer-beating shot he made against Washington to send Connecticut into the East Regional final today against North Carolina at Greensboro Coliseum.

Second-seeded Connecticut will be trying to reach the Final Four for the first time.

Top-seeded North Carolina is seeking its 14th trip to the Final Four, and fifth of the 1990s.

"By the time I got to my room, it was 3:30 a.m., and I tried to stay up so I could see it," Hamilton said. "I still haven't."

What many people didn't know was that Hamilton was fighting a bad cold and sinus pain Thursday night. One more reason he didn't dream.

"I think the medicine I took really put me to sleep," he said. "But I've dreamed of a shot like that all my life. Every time you see that on TV, a buzzer-beater, you think about winning a game that way. I still can't believe it happened."

It has happened with Connecticut before.

It happened for Connecticut, when Tate George made a buzzer-beater against Clemson in 1990 in a regional semifinal.

And it happened to Connecticut in the next game, when Duke's Christian Laettner made a 14-foot last-second shot in overtime to stop Connecticut a step short of the Final Four.

Connecticut also lost a regional final to UCLA in 1995 in its most recent chance to reach the Final Four.

UConn has won more games in the 1990s than any school other than Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona and Duke, and Coach Jim Calhoun has won more than 500 games.

But no Final Fours.

"The University of Connecticut is trying to reach the Final Four, and we haven't been there. Jim Calhoun is not part of the equation," Calhoun said. "If at any point in time, my goals, my aspirations, ever interfered with these kids, I'd be devastated. I am not part of the equation."

North Carolina Coach Bill Guthridge has been to plenty of Final Fours, but none as a head coach. Senior guard Shammond Williams has been to two, but said he and the Tar Heels are hungrier than ever.

"Just going back to the Final Four again wouldn't do it for us," he said. "The national championship, that's what I want."

Connecticut (32-4) is an underdog against North Carolina (33-3), but the Huskies have gotten this far with a very young team.

Hamilton, a skinny 6-foot-6 swingman, was the Big East player of the year, the first sophomore to win that award since Chris Mullin in 1983.

Hamilton's nickname "Rip" by the way, has nothing to do with basketball. It goes back to his youth in the small mill town of Coatesville, Pa.

"That's my father's nickname," Hamilton said. "Where I'm from--Coatesville's such a small area--everybody knows you, and people just called me Little Rip."

How was it that Big Rip got his name?

"He said he used to rip up a lot of things when he was younger," Hamilton said.

Hamilton is Connecticut's biggest scorer, but the team's floor leader and second-leading scorer is freshman point guard Khalid El-Amin, a husky Husky who looks about 32.

All told, the starting lineup consists of a freshman, three sophomores and a junior.

Hamilton averaged 16 points a game as a freshman, but showed signs late in the season of what he could do, with two 31-point performances in the last eight games.

This season, he averaged 22 points and has scored more than 25 in 10 games, including a career-high 38 against Boston College.

He surpassed 1,000 points in only his 55th college game, and has scored 1,289 points, more than any sophomore in Connecticut history. His 780 points this season are more than any Connecticut player other than Donyell Marshall or Ray Allen has scored in a single season.

At 180 pounds, Hamilton is plain scrawny, but he is a slasher and a shooter with three-point range, and that's a tough combination.

"People talk about it, my thin frame. I think the game of basketball is not a physical grudge match," Hamilton said. "The mental part is the more important than the physical part."

El-Amin is Hamilton's opposite, if anything, at 5-10 and 200 pounds.

"Rip's tough inside," El-Amin said. "You can lift all the weights you want. He's got inside toughness you can't get in the weight room.

"But he has become stronger this year. And he's become able to break people down with the dribble. He really knows how to get himself open this year."

El-Amin, who spurned home-state Minnesota for Connecticut, watched the Huskies play last year and knew what they needed.

"They were missing a player like myself to take the pressure off Ricky [Moore] and Rip and get them the ball," he said. "I saw a team that needed a sparkplug."

They'll need a spark to get past North Carolina, which seems to have a decided advantage inside with the quickness and athleticism of Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.

The Tar Heels also have a bit more rest--they played the early game Thursday--and a home-court advantage at Greensboro Coliseum, where they are 98-25 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title over Duke two weeks ago.

That court hasn't been bad to Connecticut either, though. The Huskies survived when Hamilton scored on the Connecticut's third shot in the final 10 seconds.

"It's been a thrill. It happened. Now it's over with," Hamilton said. "We've just got to move on."

If they can, they'll make UConn history.

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