Friday, April 2, 2004

Final Four road to title often slippery

By Mike Lopresti
Gannett News Service

SAN ANTONIO - The quartet is all here now, laden with confidence and belief and new Final Four caps. Would this be a good time to mention how things have been known to go wrong at this point? Probably not.

But let's do it anyway.

Saturday's semifinals are the last turn of the road to the title game. "We can't get to Monday until we get to Saturday," Connecticut's Jim Calhoun said the other day, with a clear grasp of the weekend itinerary.

And sometimes, that last turn can get a little slippery. So here it is, a collection of memorable semifinal frustrations, calamities and flameouts.

Or how the Final Four can get mean once the games start:

1957 - Fight and claw through three overtimes ... and lose? Aggghhh. Michigan State did it against North Carolina, acquiring the honor of losing the longest semifinal in Final Four history. But at least the Spartans had company. The next night, Kansas lost in three overtimes to North Carolina in the longest championship game in history.

1962 - UCLA was led by a Final Four rookie coach. Guy named John Wooden. And his Bruins just missed ruining Cincinnati's march to a second straight national championship 72-70. But Wooden would be back one day, and win 18 straight Final Four games.

1968 - Oh, how Houston partied when the No. 2 Cougars beat No. 1 UCLA during the regular season in a mega-hyped showdown at the Astrodome that took college basketball to a new level. Houston rolled on to a 31-0 record. But then the Cougars met the Bruins again in the semifinals. Revenge can feel like a microwave has been dropped on your foot. Final score: UCLA 101, Houston 69.

1974 - UCLA's majestic streak of seven straight national titles seemed secure enough when the Bruins went up seven points in the second overtime against North Carolina State. Then the Bruins started throwing away the ball, and the Wolfpack won 80-77. After all those championships, UCLA was found to be mortal.

1983 - Louisville, athletic and unafraid, decided to try to outrun Houston's Phi Slama Jama. Ouch. Thirteen Houston dunks later, the Cardinals had been blown away 94-81. The media proclaimed it 21st century basketball, until two days later when a 20th century slowdown by North Carolina State upset Houston.

1984 - With Patrick Ewing swatting everything in the air, Georgetown's defense could be intimidating and Kentucky had trouble with it. The Wildcats tried 33 shots in the second half. They made three, none by a starter. They lost 53-40.

1987 - UNLV's Freddie Banks buried 10 3-pointers, a Final Four record yet unchallenged. But they couldn't atone for leaky defense. The Rebels lost to Indiana 97-93.

1991 - Double shocks. First, North Carolina's Dean Smith not only lost to former assistant Roy Williams of Kansas, but was tossed out of the game with two technical fouls. Then, 34-0 UNLV fell apart in the final minutes against Duke, a team it beat in the national championship game the year before, 103-73.

2000 - After 59 years, Wisconsin was back in the Final Four. And lost to Michigan State 53-41, scoring only two points more than its last Final Four game in 1941.

2001 - After 13 minutes, Maryland led by 22 points. But Duke won 95-84. And you wonder why Gary Williams always looks hyper on the bench.

2003 - Marquette was such a nice story, upsetting Kentucky in the regional final and evoking the memory of Al McGuire. Too bad they had to play the game. Kansas 94, Marquette 61.

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