There's some irony in the timing of writing this, and a stiff reminder at how while we never change, the world around us most certainly does not.
I'm an unapologetic hater of the University of Connecticut men's basketball program. As I relayed in a trip to neither beautiful nor historic Storrs earlier this season
, the reasons go all the way back to my early childhood when UConn was a member of the then fledgling Big East. It was made deeper by trying to deal with Jim Calhoun as a member of the college media, and - let's be honest here - the rising success of the Huskies.
When Syracuse went to the Final Four in 1996, I was able to hold that over the local populace, until three years later, UConn knocked off a tiny school no one had heard of from Washington called Gonzaga to reach their first Final Four, which they proceeded to win in upset fashion over Duke, a feat they repeated five years later, just an April after my alma mater had finally captured their elusive title, Calhoun and the Huskies were taking the trophy again.
Two years later, UConn was the dominant team in the Big East. Again. Their legions of fans knew no bounds and entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, despite Syracuse stunning them in the Big East quarterfinals, much to my delight (although the fact that it was such a big upset - with the Orange as a No. 9 seed - tells you about the general state of affairs at the time for an Orange fan living in Connecticut).
UConn got my hopes up when they mysteriously found themselves down double figures to No. 16 seed Albany before prevailing and was all but dead against Washington in the Sweet 16 before pulling the game out of their ass (with 26 turnovers, no less) in overtime. All that stood in the way of another agonizing Final Four was George Mason.
Obviously in retrospect, I should have believed in "All of Us, Each of Us" (with the comma)
and the fact that the Huskies were obviously vulnerable, but as I've broached this season, complete faith is hard in the face of history and consistent failure and humiliation.
The anti-UConn association (basically, my Syracuse friends) gathered to watch the ritual sacrifice, which was going as planned when the Huskies went up by 12 in the first half and led by nine in the early portions of the second. I can still remember sitting with my hands folded on the couch, refusing to cheer as the Patriots started to make a game of it.
I knew how this story was going to end, why get my hopes up? I'm not proud of myself for acting like that, taking the fun out of the proceedings, but in my defense, there wasn't a precedent for George Mason in 2006. Mid-major teams were apt to go on nice runs in the NCAA Tournament every once in while, but they didn't go to the Final Four. This was before Butler and VCU and Wichita St.; the closest thing we had to a similar situation was Penn and Indiana State in 1979, and life was a whole lot different in the college sports landscape back then.
But with the Patriots leading 71-67 and holding the ball with less than a minute left, I finally got on my feet. I could feel hope rise from my feet through my insides, reaching somewhere near the heart area, when George Mason held a 74-70 lead with 23 seconds left. It was almost head high with six seconds left when Tony Skinn went to the free throw line with a chance to seal it.
He didn't, of course. And I was left standing in horror when Denham Brown tied the game at the buzzer. How did I let myself get fooled again? I chided myself over and over, as I took my seat back on the couch, and barely noticed that George Mason had a four-point lead again with one minute remaining in the extra session.
Jai Lewis, the one name other than Skinn that I still remember without looking, pushed it to five. It was still five with 26.4 seconds left, and the Patriots even had another free throw coming, but still I remained on the couch. The only one on the couch.
Of course, after a scramble that could have gone either way, UConn's Marcus Williams hit a long superhoop to make it 86-84 with 10.1 seconds left.
Ha, I thought, you're not fooling me.
Lewis missed two free throws at the other end seconds later, Brown dribbled down the court, stepped back and let fly for the game-winning and heartbreaking three-pointer. Only I wasn't going to let them this time. This time, I was ready when the ball went through the basket.
But it didn't. It bounced off the rim and harmlessly away.
"By George, the dream is alive."
Well, at least Verne Lundquist thought George Mason had enough chance to come up with a canned finish beforehand.
As Lundquist's words rang through the air and jubilation went on around me, both in the television and in the living room, I stayed rooted to the couch, arms still folded.
Finally, after an interminable delay, I rose and yelled to no one in particular.
"Holy shit, that really happened!"
Later, when VCU and Northern Iowa both took care of Kansas, and Butler made its magical runs through the tournaments, the was no heart of stone. Not every upset I got excited about came to fruition, but at least I knew there was enough there to give them a fighting chance.
Sadly, time has made that George Mason run a little less attractive, at least for our purposes. As we know, Jim Larranaga soon went to Miami and the Patriots will head to the Atlantic-10 next season.
The CAA, the conference that propelled both the George Mason and VCU runs, both as at-large selections, is in shambles, and if it wasn't already, will be a shell of its former self soon, a cautionary tale to conferences who want to get too big and ignore rivalries and geography.
The hate I have for UConn basketball is also slowly fading with age. Calhoun is gone, replaced by the seemingly much more likable Kevin Ollie. The Huskies are also currently the biggest loser in conference realignment, as when the music stopped (at least this time around), they didn't have a chair nearby. Add the fact that UConn and Syracuse won't be sharing a conference come next season, and my anger has cooled. For now.
But I'll always have the night George Mason took down UConn. And I'll be forever grateful to them for it.
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