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Connecticut Is Maddening

The tightest matchup in an NCAA tournament round filled with tight games is the top-seeded Connecticut Huskies against themselves and their coach, a constant battle to survive their own mistakes and advance.

They will play another game, against George Mason if not each other, after drawing their tournament lives to the last seconds, tempting fate and the limits of Jim Calhoun’s patience.

They’ll have at least one more game together, the regional final Sunday, after Rashad Anderson’s three-point basket with 1.8 seconds left in regulation sent the game into overtime, where Connecticut beat Washington, 98-92.

“I think that anybody with the passion for the game that I have, also we’re striving for excellence, I can’t stand when the kids make bonehead plays,” Calhoun said. “Tonight we made some really awful plays with the basketball. That exasperates me. Being 30-3, we have always come back to respond. This team has got an incredible heart.”

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Heart was the only praise Calhoun had for his players, and indeed they showed it by overcoming an 11-point deficit early in the second half and a six-point deficit late.

But he used words such as “extraordinary” for Washington’s Huskies and said, “They really, really are a credit to any basketball team in America.”

Connecticut is becoming increasingly frustrating to anyone not from the state -- and probably many members of their own fan base.

The Huskies managed to withstand one last mistake, when Washington’s Ryan Appleby intercepted a pass to give his team possession with the chance to tie the score with a basket or take the lead with a three-pointer.

But Joel Smith tried a crosscourt pass that was stolen by Marcus Williams, an example of the UConn Huskies at their best, playing end-to-end, side-to-side defense.

But, as has been the case for the majority of their games lately, they didn’t play start-to-finish basketball.

It’s why, when assessing his team before this weekend’s Washington Regional, Calhoun said, “We’ve probably had five complete games all year. We’ve been a team of lapses” and “This, by nature, has not been quite as mature a team as I would like.”

The Huskies had 26 turnovers Friday.

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Calhoun did a lot of talking to the folks along press row, feeling a need to vent to someone after being hit with a technical foul in the first half and not wanting to get ejected with a second.

But if he wasn’t getting through to his players, he apparently got through to the officials, even if they only overheard his comments.

“These guys [the officials] have lost complete control,” Calhoun said five minutes into the second half. “There’s not enough fouls called.”

The game got tighter and the whistles came more quickly shortly thereafter.

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Connecticut had cut into the 11-point deficit when the tone changed with a foul on Washington’s Brandon Roy, followed by a double-technical on Roy and Connecticut’s Rudy Gay when the two started jawing at each other. The technical also counted as a personal foul, which gave Roy four and sent him to the bench for the next seven minutes.

Washington managed to emerge with a lead during that time, but now the Connecticut players were energized and into the hunt. Somehow they managed to go 12 minutes without a turnover.

And in the last minute, UConn overcame a four-point deficit in the last 21 seconds thanks to a three-point play by Marcus Williams and, after a pair of free throws by Roy, a three-pointer by Anderson that dropped through the net with 1.8 seconds left.

Connecticut sure got the calls down the stretch, including an apparent goaltending on a shot by Roy and a no-call when Justin Dentmon pump-faked and drew a defender on top of him.

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But Connecticut did make the shots and plays it had to.

The team that was more enjoyable played in the earlier game.

George Mason doesn’t have the highest seeding, the grandest tradition or the most talent. But try, just try, to find a team having a better time in this NCAA tournament.

Granted at this point there are only seven other squads to choose from, which is a big reason for all the excitement.

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“We move into the Elite Eight,” George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said, spreading his mouth wide as he carefully annunciated the last two words. “That sounds awfully good.”

Yep, pretty good for a team from the Colonial Athletic Assn. with a 27-year history of Division I college basketball and a No. 11 seeding in this tournament.

They did it primarily with defense, but just as important they did it with joy. There were fist pumps and yells after offensive putbacks and defensive stops, flying chest bumps when they forced Wichita State to call timeout and finally, when the horn sounded and the scoreboard read 63-55, the party kicked into full gear.

In the postgame news conference, the word “fun” came up five times, including in Larranaga’s opening statement.

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“First of all, we’re having a helluva lot of fun,” Larranaga said.

Guard Lamar Butler kept smiling the entire time, as if he were auditioning for a role as the Cheshire Cat.

“It’s been fun,” guard Tony Skinn said.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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