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NCAA TOURNAMENT: WEST REGIONAL

Connecticut snags Final Four berth

Huskies fight off Missouri, 82-75, making 26 of 32 free throws.

March 29, 2009|Mike Anthony

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — It wasn't a short, sweet, four-game, two-week trip to college basketball's grand stage. It wasn't as simple as winning two games in Philadelphia, two more in Arizona, throwing on some hats, doing a few dances, grabbing a trophy and moving on to Detroit.

But Connecticut, single-minded and tenacious, is back in the Final Four for the third time. On Saturday afternoon at cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium, the top-seeded Huskies outlasted No. 3 Missouri, 82-75, in a frantic West Regional final in front of 18,886. Afterward, UConn players beamed with pride for having negotiated the twists and turns that led to a most rewarding destination.

Coach Jim Calhoun broke down in tears upon defeating Gonzaga in 1999 to advance to St. Petersburg, Fla. In 2004, Calhoun pretty much knew he had the best team in the nation before arriving in San Antonio. This one, he said, is special because he's headed to Ford Field with a team "who found a way, found a way to get to a Final Four. That's a hard, hard, hard thing to do."

But from Kemba Walker's brilliance off the bench Saturday, to Stanley Robinson's emergence over the last month, to the poise of A.J. Price, to the grit that enabled the Huskies to make 26 of 32 free throws, the Huskies found a way.

"This team worked very hard to get to this point, and we deserve everything we've gotten so far," said Price, who had 80 points in four games and was named the regional's most outstanding player. "By no means is our journey over. We're going to push to continue this ride."

Ladders were brought out, but UConn did not cut down the nets.

"Bigger fish," Calhoun said. "We'd love to have the opportunity at Ford Field."

Walker led Connecticut (31-4) with 23 points, tying the freshman's season high. His zigzagging bursts of speed helped the Huskies through relentless full-court pressure, and his ability to finish spoke to his gumption on the big stage. Price had 18 points. Robinson had 13 points and four blocks. Jeff Adrien had 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Missouri (31-7) hung tough after trailing by 11 early. UConn's final eight points came on free throws.

"They are an outstanding team," said Missouri Coach Mike Anderson, whose team set a school record for victories a year after going 16-16. "They rose to the occasion. They made big plays. A.J. Price goes out and makes a big, big shot going down the stretch. . . .

"But to our guys' credit, it wasn't over until the clock said 0:00."

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manthony@courant.com

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