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From North Carolina to Northridge, NCAA season highlights

The biggest were the best, but don't forget an over-the-top overtime game, Connecticut and Kentucky comedowns . . . and North Dakota State.

April 08, 2009

Reporter Chris Dufresne recaps the 2008-09 college basketball season in one half-court-press passage:

North Carolina got the ring, and John Calipari got the bling. All of our student-athletes played their hearts -- and scholarships -- out while coaches worked back-channel deals to secure better jobs and vacation homes.

Cal State Northridge made the NCAA tournament along with two other local teams. UCLA's streak of Final Fours ended at three, but this could be the beginning for USC.

There were no George Masons this year, only major conference powerhouses running roughshod over the little guys with their 7-foot centers, millionaire coaches and bloated recruiting budgets.

And people say football's Bowl Championship Series is rigged? Maybe it's only important that, in the end, the best team wins.

The best team won.

A look back at 10 (not all shining) moments:

1 Nothing could be finer

North Carolina began the season as a unanimous No. 1 and ended it that way, dismantling Michigan State on Monday night at Detroit's Ford Field to win the school's fifth national championship. The Tar Heels won six NCAA tournament games by 12 points or more. Point guard Ty Lawson set a championship-game record with eight steals, and Wayne Ellington received the Final Four's most outstanding player award as he scored 17 first-half points to give his team a 21-point lead at intermission.

2 An all-nighter

Syracuse and Connecticut met at Madison Square Garden in a Big East quarterfinal that started at 9:36 p.m. on a Thursday and ended at 1:22 a.m. on Friday. Syracuse outlasted Connecticut, 127-117, in six overtimes. Syracuse did not hold the lead after regulation until the sixth extra period. Orange guard Jonny Flynn played 67 of the possible 70 minutes. After the game he said: "I can't even feel my legs right now."

3 Yippee? No, Yahoo!

Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun won his 800th game this year, but there was no soft, season-ending landing. After dehydration forced Calhoun to miss the Huskies' first-round NCAA tournament win against Chattanooga, the program was derailed by a Yahoo story that alleged improprieties in the recruitment of Nate Miles. Connecticut made the Final Four but lost in a national semifinal to Michigan State, after which Calhoun dropped hints he might retire.

4 Wildcats strike

Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991, and that was enough for the decision-making boys of Bluegrass to jettison second-year coach Billy Gillispie and seek, with money being no concern, a man who could restore the program to its birthright. Kentucky opted for Memphis Coach John Calipari, who will be paid $4.1 million a year -- what recession? -- to keep Kentucky (seven national titles) ahead of North Carolina (five) in the race for second-most national titles behind UCLA's 11.

5 Reynolds wrap

With a trip to the Final Four on the line in the East Regional final, Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds took a pass from Dante Cunningham and raced downcourt for the game-winning shot, with 0.5 of a second left, to beat Pittsburgh. It was a reprise of the frenetic shot UCLA guard Tyus Edney made to beat Missouri in the second round of the 1995 tournament in Boise, Idaho. Edney's shot propelled UCLA toward the national title. Villanova lost a national semifinal against North Carolina.

6 Desert storm

Crazy year in Tucson: Days before the season opener, legendary coach Lute Olson resigned for health reasons and the team was turned over to assistant Russ Pennell, a radio color analyst for Arizona State basketball last season. Pennell deftly guided the team to its 25th straight NCAA tournament, in which the Wildcats became the only Pac-10 team to reach the Sweet 16. After a wipeout loss to Louisville, the school's search for a new coach included a frenetic overture to USC's Tim Floyd, who declined. Arizona eventually coaXed over Xavier Coach Sean Miller.

7 Worth watching

He doesn't look like much at 5 feet 11 and 185 pounds, with pasty skin and short-cropped hair, but all North Dakota State senior guard Ben Woodside did this season was score 60 points in a game, made the game-winning jumper to clinch the Summit League tournament title and his school's first NCAA Division I tournament bid, and then score 37 points in a first-round game against Kansas -- the defending national champion. Woodside: "It was fun competing against Kansas and guys you see on ESPN."

8 Roller-coaster ride

Cal State Northridge's trip to the NCAA tournament was improbable only because the Matadors had to overcome Deon Tresvant, the team's leading scorer, and Coach Bobby Braswell's son being charged with burglary and grand theft. Then, point guard Josh Jenkins was lost for the season because of injuries suffered in a car accident. Northridge persevered to win the Big West regular-season and tournament titles, then nearly stunned No. 2 Memphis in a first-round NCAA game.

9 State of Michigan

Michigan State . . . sentimental favorites? With no low-seeded mid-majors left in the field, the second-seeded Spartans took the torch with an inspiring run to the title game. Michigan State became the poster team for the nation's economic woes and put the spotlight on a state that has suffered more than most. The fact the Final Four was in Detroit made this a storybook ride -- except for the ending.

10 Tyler and Blake

North Carolina senior Tyler Hansbrough, last season's unanimous player of the year, bounce-passed the mantle to Oklahoma sophomore forward Blake Griffin, who is cleaning up all the awards this season. Hansbrough capped his brilliant, four-time All-American career by winning a national title. Griffin announced Tuesday that he couldn't put off NBA riches any longer. Griffin is expected to be the top pick in this year's draft. In the end, both big men win.

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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