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Connecticut’s Robinson Now Working Hard to Become a Team Leader

The Hartford Courant

He missed his first five field-goal attempts, but he didn’t pout. He made a bad pass in the final minute, but instead of spacing out, he sprinted downcourt and swooped in behind Villanova’s Gary Massey in a manner scarier than any Stephen King novel. Massey missed.

In between, he gave up four inches and a gallon of sweat as he banged bodies with 7-foot-2 Tom Greis. And when the action stopped for a second, he bent like a willow and tugged at his shorts, the universal sign for basketball exhaustion.

Vince Lombardi once said that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” It did not make a coward of Cliff Robinson.

“There were a couple of times I wanted to ask for a blow (breather),” Cliff Robinson said, “but it was too close, so I stayed in there.”

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If the 1988-89 University of Connecticut basketball team were a building, Cliff Robinson would be the steel beams. Murray Williams may have supplied the final flash and dash and Tate George a gentle guiding hand in UConn’s 57-55 win over Villanova Wednesday night in its Big East opener, but, as usual, it was Robinson who supplied the foundation and the unbending structural support that kept the Huskies from caving in.

With scouts from seven National Basketball Association teams and a sellout Civic Center crowd of 16,016 in attendance, the 6-10 senior center struggled to score 20 points (on 10 of 29 field goal shooting) and grab nine rebounds. But while Robinson was taking good shots and clearly wasn’t in command of the roll of the rim, he was in command of something far more important:

Himself.

“I wanted to win so badly,” Robinson said. “I don’t want to go back to those first two years here. Before, I probably would have gotten myself out of the game because of fouls and frustration.”

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When Cliff Robinson plays as he did Wednesday night, he makes “before” seem like a long time ago.

“Before” was when he whined to the referees. “Before” was when his body language bespoke anger and insolence that distracted him like a five-alarm fire whenever things weren’t going his way. “Before” was when if Robinson got off to a slow start, he was better off on the bench.

But when this, a more intense, more mature Cliff Robinson is on the bench, the only people better off are the opposition. Ultimately, that made it a bad night for Villanova, because Robinson danced every dance, played every second of this frantic 40 minutes.

“Cliff was the most composed of any of our players,” UConn Coach Jim Calhoun said. “He was the guy settling everyone down.”

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He was also the guy expected to be The Man, as is the custom with prospective first round NBA draft choices.

Especially Wednesday night. Greis notwithstanding, the Wildcats, along with Boston College, are the smallest team in the Big East. And inasmuch as the hulking Greis has a sweet shooting touch but little quickness or mobility, Calhoun was hoping Robinson would wheel around him like a racing car around a lap pole.

“We felt that Tom couldn’t defend Cliff,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun’s feelings were based on obvious facts. But too often, the results were ruined by bad rim rolls. While Robinson got Greis in foul trouble -- limiting him to 28 minutes -- he wasn’t getting the ball in the basket.

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“I wasn’t nervous (at the beginning),” Robinson said, “but I was overanxious. I’ve been having a tough year shooting.”

The same could hardly be said for Greis, who entered the game ranked sixth in field goal percentage in the Big East and was 5-of-5 from the field at halftime. Villanova had a two-point lead and Robinson, after an easy holiday diet of Harvard and Air Force, was having to work hard at both ends of the floor.

Needlessly, as it turned out. Robinson finished with three steals and two blocked shots -- both blocks in the second half. Of Robinson’s five rebounds in the second half -- four were on the offensive board. Hardly the signature of an exhausted man.

It didn’t get Robinson down that the Huskies lost. None of it. He hung in there to get the Huskies their first win over Villanova since Jan. 23, 1982. He did what leaders do. He did what he knows he has to do for UConn to make nice noises in the beastly Big East.

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But he didn’t make much noise afterward. Just talked calmly about his responsibilities. Scolded himself for missing that last-minute free throw -- his only trip to the line all night -- that would have sealed Villanova’s fate and made Murray Williams’ mad dash unnecessary.

If he were a pro scout, Robinson was asked, how would he assessed Cliff Robinson’s performance?

“That he didn’t shoot well but he kept playing hard,” Robinson said. “He kept his intensity up and he boosted everybody to a win.”


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