Far from their boisterous fans and happy about it, the Huskies of Connecticut patched up their sled and mushed onward toward Oakland.
Cincinnati, a highly regarded dark horse, fell Saturday, 96-91, but it wasn’t that close. Donny Marshall scored 25 points and sophomore Ray Allen had 24 as UConn took a 16-point lead with 5:08 left and coasted in through a hail of three-pointers.
The Bearcats made 50% of their three-point shots, which didn’t cheer up their glowering coach, Bob Huggins.
“Not when you have to shoot 30 of them,” he said gloomily. “We didn’t throw the ball on the block.”
UConn, seeded second in the West, advances to the regional semifinals to meet third-seeded Maryland, which defeated Texas.
Ranked No. 1 in the nation as late as Feb. 12, the Huskies started 20-1 but finished 25-4, including a 16-point loss to Villanova in the finals of the Big East tournament, and were exiled to Utah.
Not that they minded.
Had they played anywhere in the East, their fans would have followed them. Their hotel would have been jammed. Players would have been cheered for stepping out of elevators. When UConn plays St. John’s in Madison Square Garden, almost half the 19,000 fans are from Connecticut and the cars of the Metro-Northwest commuter line are jammed like those on an English soccer train.
When the Huskies got off the plane here, 2,000 miles from home, Coach Jim Calhoun said other Big East coaches such as Georgetown’s John Thompson had told him how nice it was to get away from everyone.
“Of course,” Calhoun added, “John does that in D.C.”
The Huskies mopped up 15th-seeded Tennessee Chattanooga on Thursday, 100-71, and took a side trip to the ski resort of Park City to loosen up some more for Cincinnati, which posed a greater threat.
Calhoun plays three guards, the 6-7 Marshall and one of two centers, tall Travis Knight or thick Vic Hayward, neither of them a star. The Huskies depend on their pressing, trapping defense, but so do the Bearcats, with more quickness, as much size and no-conscience guards, LaZelle (Where’s That NBA Three-Point Line?) Durden and Darnell Burton.
The Huskies jumped out to a 23-12 lead, but then Huggins scrapped his man-to-man defense for a matchup zone and the Bearcats went on a 27-12 run.
The Huskies, however, scored the last five points of the half and started turning the game back around. With 1:00 left, Kevin Ollie, a senior point guard from Crenshaw High, made a running five-footer on a fast break, was fouled and made the free throw.
Moments later, Cincinnati forward Keith Gregor traveled in the backcourt, trying to start a fast break. Huggins put the old Huggins glare on him. UConn got the ball back and Ollie made a leaning 10-footer with seven-tenths of a second left for a 44-41 lead.
Cincinnati’s zone went soft in the second half and the three Husky guards--Ollie, Allen and Israeli national team star Doron Scheffer--drove through the gaps and cut the Bearcats to ribbons.
“It just felt relaxing,” Ollie said of the weekend in Utah.
“You know the media, they’re going to go with you, but they’ve got to write stories. If we’re struggling, they’re going to write that in the paper and we read that and we read when we’re doing good. You know, that’s their job and we just got to go with the flow, play for the 15 guys here and Coach Calhoun and let everything else take care of itself.”
They headed for Oakland, thankfully even farther from home.