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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.
This has been a complicated expedition, a thorny path through the mediocrity of 2006-07, the triumphs and tribulations of 2007-08 and all this season has entailed -- dominance, injury, setbacks, resilience and, most recently, potential distractions.
But UConn, 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 before 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. 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 ... indeed, 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 UConn (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.
The Huskies had a 26-6 edge at the free-throw line and shot 50.9 percent from the field, including 70.4 percent in the first half. For the third game in a row, UConn came out on fire and led, 13-2. It was 44-38 at halftime after Price blew by Zaire Taylor for a driving layup as time expired.
The Huskies would be tested in the second half. Missouri, Team Caffeine, had eight players play at least 13 minutes and nearly blitzed its way to its first Final Four. Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence each had 13 points.
It was 50-50, then 54-54. Mizzou (31-7) never led but UConn was not in the clear until late. Walker went at the teeth of the defense for an arcing layup with 5:39 left that made it 63-59. Next, Hasheem Thabeet (five points, 13 rebounds) made a layup from Walker. After a timeout, Craig Austrie missed a three-pointer but Robinson soared for an offensive rebound, was fouled and made two free throws for an eight-point lead with 4:15 remaining.
Missouri, which forced 17 UConn turnovers and committed just six, got back to 68-65 with a 6-2 run that ended with a put-back by Justin Safford, but Walker followed with a difficult bank shot while smothered in the lane. Safford scored again. Price then made a turnaround jumper that gave UConn a 72-67 lead with 1:35 left.
"They are an outstanding team," said Mizzou 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. I thought the biggest one is where we had great defense and -- is it Kemba? -- Kemba Walker banks one in. And you go, 'Whoa, what is taking place?' But to our guys' credit, it wasn't over until the clock said 0:00." f CONNECTICUT 82, MISSOURI 75 MISSOURI (31-7): Carroll 6-14 0-0 12, Taylor 3-13 1-2 8, Tiller 3-4 2-4 8, Lyons 5-11 3-4 13, Lawrence 5-12 0-0 13, Denmon 1-3 0-0 2, Anderson Jr. 0-0 0-0 0, Ramsey 4-5 0-1 8, Bowers 0-0 0-0 0, Safford 4-8 0-1 9, English 0-4 0-0 0, Paul 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 32-76 6-12 75.o CONNECTICUT (31-4): Austrie 1-4 4-4 7, Adrien 5-8 2-2 12, Price 6-17 5-7 18, Robinson 4-7 5-6 13, Thabeet 2-4 1-3 5, Beverly 1-1 0-0 2, Edwards 1-3 0-0 2, Walker 7-9 9-10 23. Totals 27-53 26-32 82.o Halftime--Connecticut 44-38. 3-point goals--Missouri 5-18 (Lawrence 3-7, Safford 1-2, Taylor 1-4, Lyons 0-1, Denmon 0-1, Carroll 0-3), Connecticut 2-12 (Austrie 1-4, Price 1-6, Robinson 0-1, Walker 0-1). Fouled out--Tiller. Rebounds--Missouri 32 (Tiller 5), Connecticut 47 (Thabeet 13). Assists--Missouri 21 (Tiller 5), Connecticut 15 (Walker 5). Total fouls--Missouri 24, Connecticut 13. A--18,886.o