BIG EAST TOURNAMENT : They Can't Ignore Connecticut Anymore

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perched happily on a teammate's shoulders, Connecticut guard Chris Smith reached up to snip the net from its Madison Square Garden rim. The Huskies had just beaten Syracuse, 78-75, in the Big East Conference tournament championship game Sunday and it was time to celebrate.

Only one problem: no scissors.

The embarrassed Smith looked down at the crowd and began pressing his forefinger and middle finger together in a cutting motion, hoping someone, anyone, would notice the gesture and slip him something sharp.

After several awkward moments, Smith, the tournament MVP, was lowered to the ground, not a cord cut. He was replaced by Tate George, who had dropped in six last-minute free throws to preserve Connecticut's lead. George, no dummy, brought with him a pair of scissors and minutes later was prancing about the court, wearing the net around his neck.

As costume jewelry went, it was gaudy but appropriate.

"Finally got it," said George, the only senior starter on the team.

About an hour and a half later, the Huskies received another prize: the NCAA's top seeding in the East Regional. It was also the Huskies' first tournament berth since 1978 and only their third in 23 seasons.

Connecticut plays Boston University in the first round at the Hartford Civic Center, about a 20-mile drive from the U. Conn. campus.

In all, six Big East teams will appear in the tournament.

But it was Connecticut that gained the most from its victory Sunday. By defeating the highly regarded Orangemen, the Huskies made it impossible for the NCAA selection committee, to say nothing of the rest of the country, to ignore them.

As usual, the Huskies defied pregame predictions and denied Syracuse the tournament championship that many expected it to claim. Sure, the Huskies had managed to tie the Orangemen for the regular-season title, but this was different. This was unchartered territory for Connecticut, which had never advanced to the final game in the Big East's 11-year history until Sunday.

In contrast, the Orangemen were making their eighth trip to the championship.

A day earlier, after Syracuse beat Villanova in the semifinal game, Wildcat center Tom Greis offered a reasonable theory.

"If I know Syracuse, they're going to want to come out and finish the deal," he said. "They know what a championship game is all about."

Greis was sort of correct. Syracuse jumped to 10-0 lead and it could have been more, but the Orangemen committed four turnovers in the run.

Meanwhile, the Huskies made nine trips down the floor and didn't have a point to show for it.

Trailing, 25-14, with 10:23 left in the first half, Connecticut began its comeback. During the next seven minutes, the Huskies outscored Syracuse, 21-4. The lead now theirs, the Huskies never trailed again.

Syracuse, flustered by Connecticut's swarming defense, committed 14 turnovers in the first half. Nor did it help that Derrick Coleman, Big East player of the year, attempted only three shots. Or that the Orangemen missed eight of 13 free throws. Or that the Connecticut reserves, led by freshman forward Toraino Walker's 10 points, had scored 22 of the Huskies' 42 points.

"Walker turned the game around for them," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim.

The Orangemen managed to tie the game twice in the second half. They inserted three-point specialist Anthony Scott into the lineup and he responded with seven quick points.

Syracuse also tried feeding the ball to Coleman, who was too much for starter Dan Cyrulik and later, Walker, who spent halftime with an ice pack on his back because of spasms.

A rare Coleman dunk with 7:59 remaining, tied the score, 60-60.

But because of Connecticut's ability to unnerve freshman guard Michael Edwards, Boeheim was forced to ask Coleman to bring the ball upcourt.

"An awful waste of a guy," Boeheim said. "We got it to him three or four times, but we couldn't get it to him enough."

The tactic explained why Coleman ended the game with only 13 points and five field goal tries. It also explained why the Huskies, who had targeted Coleman for special attention, won the game.

"I went to St. Pat's this morning, that was Plan A," said Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun of his Coleman strategy. "Plan B was, wherever he is, lay a body on him. Let Derrick beat us with jump shots."

Plan C may have been to unleash guard John Gwynn, nicknamed "The Microwave," by his teammates, on Syracuse. Gwynn, a reserve, scored 16 points, eight in each half. His three-point play with 7:08 left gave the Huskies a 65-61 lead.

From there, it became a foul-shooting contest. In the final three minutes, Connecticut converted 11 of 14 free throws, 10 of them coming on one-and-one situations. George made the last six.

"I told Coach I wanted the ball in my hands," he said.

In the end, George not only got the ball, but a championship net to wear. And Connecticut, at last, might have earned the respect it ached for.

"They can beat anybody," Boeheim said. "They got a whole lot better team than people think."

And the tournament trophy to show for it.

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