March 10, 2003
No, we were not trying to give Kareem Hayletts a storybook sendoff on senior day by isolating him on the left side.
As great as it would have been to see Kareem knock in a shot in his final game at the Dunk, it was not what we drew up in the huddle. Unfortunately late in games it is often difficult to get exactly what you want on offense because your opponent knows exactly what you want to do. As a result it often comes down to the guy with the ball trying to make a play.
So here's the deal. We wanted Ryan to take the ball out of bounds because he is one of our best passers, and we set up one of our inbounds plays to get Kareem the ball near half court. Kareem is very good at getting the ball inside and even against pressure usually finds a way to get Ryan the ball.
Coming out of the huddle, Ryan asked me exactly what he was supposed to do, and I told him again. Get the ball in to Kareem and then sprint to the block for a post up. As Kareem said in the locker room after the game, Ryan is very good at setting his man up in the post by making it look like he is going to the opposite side of the floor and then spinning back on his man, and that is what we were looking to do.
The other 3 guys on the floor were supposed to clear to the weak side to try and isolate Ryan. As soon as the ball got into Kareem, Coach wanted to make sure everyone knew where to go and he started yelling "Clear out! Clear out!" Unfortunately Ryan thought he was changing the play and wanted everyone to clear out, so when he heard those words he sprinted to the weak side of the floor. That left Kareem with the ball with nothing to do except try and make a play.
After the game we were able to laugh about it because we won the game. Coach remarked how Ryan is such a good kid, he always listens to what we want him to do and he always does exactly what we ask. So when he heard the head coach yell to clear out he just high tailed it to the other side of the court. We also made it very clear to Ryan that when we clear out at the end of a tie game, we usually mean we are clearing out for him. Trust me, I spent a lot of time explaining that one at the hockey game later that night.
Luckily for us our defense stepped up in overtime and Sick stepped up once again and made a huge shot. Tuukka was enormous in the second half for the second straight game and is playing with a ton of confidence right now. We survived a game in which we allowed our opponent to shoot 60% in the 2nd half, but that has to change. Defense is the reason we have gone from last place to third place over the last 3 weeks, and we just can't win many games allowing opponents to shoot that well.
Although it wasn't pretty, it was a fun way to end a good run in front of another loud and supportive home crowd. It was actually difficult to hear during some time outs, and that's when you know the building is rocking.
The week started off pretty well and I think we shocked a lot of people by going into Gampel and winning on senior night. With a full week off after a terrible performance at Georgetown we knew we had time to re-group, but with "at Connecticut" next on the schedule you know you are going to have to play great just to have a chance to win. We took the day off after the game, but as soon as we got together that Thursday Coach had one message for the team - We are going to Connecticut to win the game. Not just to play.
We kept talking about it all week, right up into the locker room right before the game. We didn't come down here to play hard or play well, we came down here to win the game.
We got off to a great start in that game thanks to solid defense and Ryan Gomes. Ryan came out like he was possessed in that game, burying some demons about playing at Connecticut and playing against Okafor for a kid who grew up in the state. We were able to control their fast break, limiting them to 3 transition points all night, Marcus had a completely dominant night on defense with 9 blocks.
We also executed extremely well down the stretch which was really important. A coach I know from Connecticut who was at the game told me afterwards "UConn has been in that situation, down 4 with 4-5 minutes to play, 100 times over the past few years so you're just waiting for that run that puts them over the top."
Up four with 2 minutes to play we had what was probably our best (and maybe most important) possession of the entire year. We executed one of our sets perfectly and had Sick with the ball coming off a down screen by Marcus. Sick can look inside or look to score, and he had a step on his man so he drove into the paint. Ryan Gomes spaced out on the baseline and Sick hit him with a drive-and-kick pass. Ryan passed up an open shot, hitting Donnie stepping up at the 3-point line. Donnie was open to shoot, but he made an extra pass to Tuukka at the top of the key. Tuke was open as well, but he took one hard dribble, drawing Ben Gordon and kicking the ball back to Donnie for a wide open look. Donnie buried the J and it was game, set and match. It was great execution at a critical time on the road, and that is how you win tough games.
As I've said before, road wins are great, but winning at Connecticut is pretty special. I know our fans love winning that game, and I get the feeling their fans don't every like losing to Providence. It was a big boost to our confidence as well with the Big East Tournament coming up.
So now it is time for the Big East Tournament where we have yet to find success. Three one-point losses in four years is very tough to swallow, but no one feels sorry for us. We need to make it happen to get wins down there, and no one is going to give us anything.
The Big East Tournament is a different deal. There are 3 types of teams at the Big East Tournament. The teams at the top of the league are in the NCAA and all feel they should win the Big East Tournament. The teams in the middle of the league (including us) are trying to play their way into the NCAA Tournament with a good week. I think if we can win two, we put ourselves right on the bubble. I think legitimately we probably need to win 3 to guarantee a bid. And then there are teams playing to keep their seasons alive, either to make the NIT or make it last one more day before putting the balls up.
The result is everyone leaves it all on the floor and plays with an intensity that is special. The bright lights are on, the games are on national television and you are in the world's most famous arena. Every game is a complete battle, and there aren't as many winners as there are survivors.
Coach told the guys we are playing a one-game Big East Championship on Wednesday. I'm sure our guys know who we play if we win, but we are approaching it as a one game season. West Virginia has beaten some great teams this year (like Florida) and they are one of those teams playing to keep their season alive with an NIT bid. A bid to the NIT would be a huge step for them considering where they were a year ago today and what they went through in the off-season. They are very efficient on offense and really work to control tempo.
So Wednesday is a one-game championship. Hopefully we'll have four of them this week.