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Hoop dreams

Regional games often seem too good to be true

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / March 26, 2009
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You don't get selected to the Final Four. You must earn the trip.

And much like major league baseball, in which four decades of playoff competition has demonstrated beyond dispute that the League Championship Series, and not the World Series, actually provides us with a disproportionate share of the game's most passionate, spirited, dramatic, and just plain excellent play, the NCAA regional finals have produced some of the best basketball the college game has ever known, including the game generally acknowledged to have been the very best of them all.

Here are five to remember.

  • 5. March 13, 1965. College Park, Md.

    Princeton 109, Providence 69

    Huh?

    That was the basic reaction of many who picked up their Sunday newspapers that morning. Well, yeah, people said, Bill Bradley is great and Princeton's a pretty good team for the Ivy League, but a 40-point win over Providence? How was this possible?

    It was possible because, as our own Francis Rosa told us, "[Princeton] came close to perfection in a basketball sense."

    Bradley was Bradley. The great forward had a nice little 41-10-9 line, augmented by 14-for-20 shooting. But on this occasion he had all the help any man could ask for. The rest of the team was 27 for 40, and in one memorable 12-minute stretch the Tigers did not miss a shot - 14 in all - from either the floor or the free throw line. "Princeton's shooting became so accurate late in the game, making apparently hard shots look easy," wrote Rosa, "that the crowd laughed and cheered at the same time."

    Bob Haarlow, Ed Hummer, Gary Walters (the current Princeton athletic director), and Robby Brown all came up big, but the Star of Stars was Bradley, who was removed to a standing ovation with 18 seconds left.

    This was not just another good Providence team. This was a Jimmy Walker-led Friars club that came into the game at 24-1 and that had just defeated Saint Joseph's in an epic overtime clash (The Hawks at that time had two losses, both to Providence). No one residing in any known galaxy foresaw a Princeton rout.

  • 4. March 17, 1979. Cincinnati.

    Indiana State 73, Arkansas 71

    The undefeated Sycamores got to the Final Four on an improbable 8-foot lefthanded shot in traffic at the buzzer from a righthanded player that hit the rim three times before falling through the hoop. Man oh man, that Larry Bird was some kind of player, wasn't he?

    He sure was, but the guy who put them on the plane to Salt Lake City was Bob Heaton.

    With the score tied at 71 and eight seconds to go, Bird passed to Steve Reed, who lost the ball when confronted by Arkansas forward Alan Zahn. Heaton picked it up and did what he had to do. This was the same Bob Heaton whose 50-footer at the buzzer beat New Mexico earlier in the season and the same Bob Heaton who would sink another game-clincher in the national semifinals against DePaul a week later. Handy guy to have around, wouldn't you say?

  • Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton will go to his grave feeling he blew this game. With 12 minutes to go, his team trailing, and Bird already having put up 29 points, he decided to put 6-foot-4-inch Sidney Moncrief on the 6-9 Bird. Larry had just one field goal thereafter.

    "If I had to do it all over again," Sutton acknowledged, "I would have put Moncrief on Bird from the start."

    Bird had been magnificent in the first eight minutes of the second half. He was en route to 40, 45 or whatever when Sutton sicced his bulldog on the Indiana State star. There was tremendous pressure on the Sycamores, who were 31-0 coming into the game but who knew their credentials were in dispute since they were coming out of the Missouri Valley Conference, not one of the glamour leagues. But even with Bird under wraps, they kept their poise, finding a way to get it done on the spectacular Heaton shot.

  • 3. March 16, 1980. Philadelphia.

    Iowa 81, Georgetown 80

    How do you lose a 14-point second-half lead despite shooting 68 percent from the field (15 for 22), 90 percent from the line (9 for 10) and, no, they weren't turning it over, either (10 in the entire game)?

    John Thompson is probably still asking himself.

    The reason was that anything Georgetown could do, Iowa could do better. Lute Olson's Hawkeyes shot 17 for 22 in the second half. Coming from behind against a team that really wasn't messing up in the least, Iowa did not miss in the final 6:54, going 7 for 7, while being equally relentless from the line (15 for 15 for the game). Oh, and how about one turnover in the second half?

    But the Hawkeyes were still trailing until backup big man Steve Waite sliced through the Hoyas' defense for a layup to break a 78-78 deadlock with five seconds left. It was Iowa's first lead of the second half. Two Georgetown timeouts later he finished off the 3-point play to ensure victory (A Jeff Bullis tap-in created the final score).

    There were no dead spots in this game. It was a heavyweight fight waged at the highest basketball level.

    "Why be cool about it?" inquired the Globe's Michael Madden. "On a scale of 1 to 100 this game was 99 and 44/100 percent pure. College basketball can't be played any finer."

  • 2. March 26, 2006. Washington, D.C.

    George Mason 86, Connecticut 84 (OT) Pick a cliché, any cliché.

    They weren't intimidated. They weren't afraid. They believed.

    They all apply. It wasn't about pure talent. UConn put four players on the floor who are currently in the NBA, plus at least one more (Brookline's Jeff Adrien) who probably will be. But on this particular Sunday afternoon the George Mason Patriots utilized every force they had, whether it was the shrieking crowd at the Verizon Center, conveniently and blissfully located 20 minutes from their campus, the season-long inability of talent-laden Connecticut to come together as a true team despite having won 30 games because of that talent and maybe even a little Divine Providence enabling them to play just far enough over their heads to get the job done.

  • Yes, indeed. Eleventh-seeded George Mason 86, No. 1 seed UConn 84. The Colonial Athletic Conference over the Big East. Heart over Talent.

    "They weren't interacting with one another," said George Mason guard Lamar Butler of his opponents. "They didn't look loose."

    Rudy Gay, Josh Boone, and Hilton Armstrong are all in the NBA. But on that day Jai Lewis (6-7, 265) and Will Thomas (6-7, 240) did what they wanted against the UConn big folks in the trenches. Point guard Marcus Williams is also in the NBA today, but on that day Butler and Folarin Campbell were better players.

    George Mason never lost faith when falling behind by 12. As coach Jim Larranaga pointed out, his kids had played a lot of AAU and high school ball against UConn's players. The Patriots simply weren't impressed. And they were playing UConn after beating Michigan State, North Carolina, and a good Wichita State team. They were feeling really good about themselves.

    It took a lucky three-bouncer at the regulation buzzer by Denham Brown to keep UConn alive. Larranaga: "I told them there's no place on earth I'd rather be than with you guys in the Verizon Center playing Connecticut. Now we have to beat them in a five-minute game."

    Lewis and Thomas scored 8 of the 12 George Mason points in OT. They had 39 in all. The Patriots scored first and never trailed.

    You can't say it looked easy, but you can say it looked logical. The team with the most good players didn't win. The better team did.

  • 1. March 26, 1992. Philadelphia

    Duke 104, Kentucky 103 (OT)

    You will never, ever, ever convince anyone who saw it this wasn't the greatest college game of all-time.

    Everyone knows how it ended: Christian Laettner took Grant Hill's pass from the out of bounds line at the far end of the court and sank a foul-line turnaround jumper with no time left to give defending champion Duke the win

    Fact: It would have been the greatest game even without that dramatic ending.

    Sean Woods was going to be the Kentucky hero, thanks to his impossible-to-duplicate (or even describe, really) running, banked, half-runner/half jump hook on a left-to-right move with 2.1 seconds left. That made it 103-102 Wildcats. But Mike Krzyzewski told his team in the huddle not to worry.

    "I just said, 'We're going to win,' " Coach K later confided. "Whether you completely believe it or not, the expression must be on your face and the words must be in your mouth."

    Rick Pitino will always regret his decision not to guard the inbounds pass.

    "My eyes lit up when that happened," said Hill.

    And who will ever forget the methodical, by-the-numbers Laettner maneuver? Fake this way, fake that way, and calmly swish the winner to cap your 30-point, 10-for-10 from the floor and 10-for-10 from the line afternoon. He had that proverbial clock in his head. He knew exactly what he was doing.

    It was a dazzling ending to the greatest display of "Can-You-Top-This?" offensive one-upmanship in the history of the NCAA Tournament. The Laettner winner created the fifth lead change of the final 33 seconds of overtime. From a point at which the score was tied at 81 with 5:25 remaining in regulation, each team scored six more times. In the overtime, Kentucky scored four times. Duke scored five.

    The teams combined to shoot 60 percent from the floor. Duke shot 72 percent in the first half. Kentucky shot 65 percent in the second half. Kentucky had 24 assists on 37 baskets. Duke had 23 assists on 34 baskets. Kentucky led by a 20-12 score. Duke led by a 67-55 score. The pace was relentless.

    Duke was Duke, but Kentucky would not go away. "The effort Kentucky gave was unbelievable," said Duke's Brian Davis. "We felt they'd make a run the way we had all year and then blow them out, but they just kept coming back."

    There is an old, tired cliché to the effect that, "Neither team deserved to lose." This one time it was the God's honest truth.

    Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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