- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jim Calhoun was counting the tips and deflections — one, two, three — before Richard Hamilton hit an 8-foot jumper at the buzzer to lead Connecticut past Washington 75-74 in a 1998 Sweet 16 matchup.

And then he exhaled … out of necessity.

“It was one of the great games I have been involved in,” Calhoun said this week. “It was one of the most exhausting and emotional games I’ve been in.”

It is also cited as one of the most important wins for Connecticut.

Before it, the Huskies were a perennial NCAA tournament team, reaching three Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights from 1990 to 1996 but failing to make the Final Four.

Calhoun said this week the win over Washington propelled UConn to an elite level. Even though the Huskies lost to North Carolina two days later, UConn won national titles in 1999 and 2004.

“It set up the national championship [in 1999],” Calhoun said of Hamilton’s shot. “If we hadn’t won the Washington game, we still could have won it the next year, but we might not have had the feeling that we were so close.

“Getting to the Elite Eight and losing isn’t nice, but it gave us a great deal of confidence that we played North Carolina close the whole game. And we knew we were coming back intact the next year.”

Eight years and six days after Hamilton’s shot at Greensboro Coliseum, Connecticut and Washington meet again in the round of 16 — tomorrow at 9:57 p.m. in Verizon Center.

Connecticut’s Huskies are 29-3, the top seed in the regional and perhaps the best team in the tournament.

Washington’s fifth-seeded Huskies are 26-6 and feature one of the nation’s top players — senior Brandon Roy (20.2 points a game). Washington was the unheralded No. 11 seed in 1998, didn’t win another tournament game for seven seasons and is looking to reach the final eight for the first time since 1953.

Connecticut led 47-39 at halftime. Washington led 74-73 in the final seconds when UConn had three open looks at the bucket before Hamilton’s fadeaway.

“By the time the game got down to the last two to three minutes, I called a full timeout — which I never do — to rest the kids because I thought they had nothing left to give,” Calhoun said. “We set up the final shot, it gets banged around and tipped back to Richard. The next thing I know, they’re all hurting each other by jumping on each other.”

Current Washington coach Lorenzo Romar was coaching Pepperdine in 1998.

“I was pulling for [Washington],” said Romar, who played for the Huskies. “It was a great shot by Rip, but I kept thinking we had a chance to move on and make it to the Final Four.”

Connecticut fell to North Carolina 75-64 in the regional final. After the game, the mother of Huskies guard Khalid El-Amin set the tone for the next season when she boarded the team bus and told Calhoun her son would be staying in school.

“She said, ‘My son is coming back to win the national championship,’ ” Calhoun said.

Connecticut went 34-2 in 1998-99 and defeated Duke for the title.

Two years ago, Connecticut won the title, going 33-6 and downing Duke and Georgia Tech in the Final Four.

Calhoun said this year’s Connecticut team is a cross between the two championship teams.

“It doesn’t have the ball-handling of the 1999 or 2004 teams but it does have the power and size and wing players that are as impressive,” he said. “The 1999 team refused to lose. It had a mental toughness that I’ve never seen before.

“The 2004 team was one of the best teams from the past 20 years, and it had all the answers.”

During the two championship seasons, the Huskies’ bracket was busted wide open during the first weekend. In the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds, Connecticut didn’t face a team seeded higher than No. 5.

Out of the Huskies’ way this year is No. 2 Tennessee, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Illinois and No. 6 Michigan State. But …

“You can’t look past anybody because teams have gotten this for a reason,” junior guard Marcus Williams said. “Outsiders look at the other side of our bracket and are thinking if we beat Washington, we’ll have an easy road to the Final Four. But those teams [Wichita State and George Mason] are playing well, too.”

Connecticut was ranked No. 1 for five weeks this season and has never been out of the top four. Five players average in double figures, led by Rudy Gay (15.2 points a game).

Despite the gaudy record, the Huskies have played unevenly. They lost to Syracuse in the Big East tournament, trailed 16th-seeded Albany by double digits in the second half last week and labored against Kentucky.

“When we play, a lot of times, we kick ourselves in the butt and make a lot of mistakes we shouldn’t make,” Williams said. “But when we’re playing our best and everybody is on the same page, we’re tough to beat.”

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