December 1, 1998
CHICAGO (AP) - Connecticut's offense was slipping Tuesday night. The top-ranked Huskies were actually having trouble gripping the basketball.
The solution? Listen to a speech from Kevin Freeman and win with defense.
"Kevin told us not to blame it on the slippery basketballs," teammate Richard Hamilton said after UConn pulled away in the second half and routed No. 15 Washington 69-48 in the Great Eight.
He said, Let's get down and play defense. Offense might not win us this game but defense will,"' Hamilton said.
After travel-weary Washington had pulled to within one early in the second half, UConn - behind Hamilton and Freeman - did play the tough D. They led Connecticut on a 20-2 run as Washington went nearly six minutes without a basket.
"We had a feeling with four games in five days and with the travel that the second half would be difficult for them and it was," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said.
But Washington coach Bob Bender, whose team arrived Monday afternoon following a 4,300-mile trip from Hawaii where it had won a three-day tournament, disagreed.
"That has not been a problem for us. We knew the scheduled going in and we prepared for it," Bender said. "I really believe we were pretty fresh or it would have shown earlier in the game. "
Connecticut (5-0) is ranked first for just the second time in school history. But that doesn't mean much right now.
"If we are there on the 29th or 30th of March then it will be something," Calhoun said.
Hamilton scored 17 points for UConn, which beat Washington 75-74 last March in the NCAA East Regional on his last-second shot.
Tuesday night's game was close, too, with four minutes gone in the second half.
Then Hamilton and Freeman, who added 12 points, sparked UConn even as star point guard Khalid El-Amin sat on the bench with four fouls.
"You'd think with that happening they'd have a dropoff," Washington's Donald Watts said. "But that didn't happen at all. They were still able to throw quickness and athleticism at us."
UConn finished with a 48-28 rebounding advantage and forced 14 second-half turnovers.
Watts' 3-pointer pulled Washington (4-1) to 40-39 in the opening minutes of the second half. But a tip-in, steal and soaring dunk from Freeman and seven straight points from Hamilton keyed the spurt as UConn raced to a 60-41 lead with 7:26 to go.
Washington managed only nine points over the final 12:54. The Huskies are now 1-22 against No. 1 teams, with the victory coming over UCLA in 1979.
"They played a game that made it difficult for us to do the easy things," Bender said. "We couldn't find Todd (MacCulloch) for easy baskets. And we couldn't get anything in transition."
Connecticut led 35-27 at the end of a ragged and sloppy first half that featured 15 UConn turnovers. Hamilton insisted he and his teammates had trouble gripping the basketballs, even at the free-throw line.
"I can't even explain it," he said. "It was real slippery." Washington went nearly 10 minutes without a basket as a 14-0 UConn run produced a 20-7 lead.
MacCulloch, who led Washington with 13 points, had six as the Huskies finally found the range, pulled to 27-21 and trailed by eight at the half despite missing 19 of 29 shots and being outrebounded 26-12.
The Great Eight's third straight appearance at the United Center came during the NBA lockout and brought a host of players and coaches to the arena. Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper of the Bulls, who had expected to be playing on the same floor by now, were in attendance, as was coach-in-waiting Tim Floyd.