The road to San Antonio has been decidedly smooth for the UConn Huskies. Jim Calhoun's unit dispatched Maryland and Indiana in short order, felling both opponents comfortably. The Huskies ten point triumph over UMD was powered by Ray Allen's 34-point outburst, the highest point total by any player in the first round of Legendary Madness. Inspired by his backcourt mate's opening round explosion, Kemba Walker did the heavy lifting in the Elite Eight against Indiana. The 2011 Bob Cousy Award winner dropped 33 on the Hoosiers. UConn will once again have the advantage in the backcourt, but only slightly against a veteran one-two punch of Pistol Pete and Chris Jackson. During Final Four media days, Calhoun focused in on his frontcourt. "This game will be determined around the rim, who can box out, deny those easy putbacks," said Calhoun.
Most analysts agree that this game will be determined in the paint. Shaquille O'Neal has been a force on the floor thus far in Legendary Madness, but it was his foul shooting that elevated the Tigers past North Carolina in what has been deemed the upset of the tournament. After a 3-for-7 performance from the charity stripe against Michigan, UNC's Dean Smith implemented a Hack-a-Shaq strategy down the stretch against the Bayou Bengals. Shaq Diesel responded by connecting on 9-of-16 from the line. If he continues to shoot at that clip, LSU's offensive efficiency climbs to an elite level.
One concerning statistical note for the Tigers has been their lack of production off the bench. The trio of Davis-Pettit-Thornton failed to make a single shot from the floor against the Tar Heels and mustered just two points. Dale Brown plans on increasing Marcus Thornton and Bob Pettit's minutes against the Huskies. "You need fresh bodies, particularly on the low block," commented Brown. "Pettit dropped in nine points against Michigan, and I think his size was a major asset when we were trying to keep Shaq fresh," he continued. On the flip side, UConn saw Ben Gordon explode for 14 points in their opener, almost single-handedly scoring more than LSU's bench has in the entire tournament.
What both teams will get out of their respective benches is anyone's guess, but what we do know is that the starting lineups are as equally matched as it can get. UConn will trot out five All-Americans, two National Player of the Year honorees (Allen, Okafor), and a hall of fame coach. LSU counters with four All-Americans, two National Player of the Year honorees (Maravich, O'Neal), an SEC Defensive Player of the Year (Thomas) and a hall of fame coach of their own. Talk about a star-studded affair.
The first thirteen games of Legendary Madness have, by and large, been defined by runs. Just when one alumni all-star team starts to feel comfortable, their opponent reels off three or four baskets in a row. The seesaw nature of these matchups have made for tense closing moments. In the second Final Four game played in San Antonio, however, neither team could shake free from what turned out to be an instant classic. Neither the Huskies nor the Tigers led by more than six points at any juncture of this game, which ultimately led to a game-winning shot in the waning seconds of the contest.
Like prizefighters feeling each other out in the opening rounds, both teams were content to jab from the perimeter, probing the opposition for weaknesses. The Tigers, in particular, were content to settle for NBA-range three-pointers, instead of feeding Shaq on the low block. Chris Jackson, fresh off an 18-point performance against UNC, in which he was perfect from the floor, struggled to find his rhythm. By halftime, the former three-point marksman was just 1-for-7 from long range. The Huskies, while not quite as perimeter driven, struggled in the mid-range game. The famed UConn backcourt of Walker and Allen finished the night just 9-of-27 from the field. The brick-fest that was the first ten minutes of action, was accompanied by numerous trips to the foul line. If it weren't for Rip Hamilton and Chris Jackson's work at the line, both teams would have struggled to crack 30 points in the first twenty minutes.
The only casualty of the foul-a-thon was Ben Simmons who picked up his second charge and third overall foul before the last TV timeout of the first half. Simmons was dangerously close to picking up a technical, letting out a guttural yell after barreling into Rudy Gay in the paint. Dale Brown opted to sub in Glen Davis for the remainder of the half. Davis' lack of range allowed the Huskies to essentially double-team Pistol Pete. Maravich still managed to create his own shot but the double-teams cut down on his ability to create off the dribble for his teammates. It was clear that Calhoun and his staff were content to let anyone other than Shaq and Maravich beat them.
Despite LSU's struggles in the first half, the final 90 seconds all fell the Tigers' way. Emeka Okafor was blocked by Bob Pettit and Chris Jackson found space in transition, burying an open three. The following possession became the highlight of the first half as Tyrus Thomas rejected a double-clutch jumper from Rip Hamilton, before collecting the ball and racing down the court for a go-ahead slam. Calhoun quickly ushered his team into the locker room, breezing by sideline reporters before disappearing into the tunnel. Despite more turnovers, a lower shooting percentage and three fouls on Ben Simmons, LSU was winning ugly, 38-37.
Sean McDonough, who was on the call for ESPN, pointed out that the loss of Simmons on the wing had the potential to open things up for Donyell Marshall. The former Big East Player of the Year had yet to put his mark on the tournament, following two frustrating performances against Maryland and Indiana (3.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg). McDonough's advice for the Huskies proved to be prophetic in the opening minutes of the second half. Marshall took Big Baby off the dribble on the first possession, finishing through contact for an old-fashioned three-point play. Two possessions later Kemba Walker drove the lane and found Marshall for an easy baseline lay-in.
LSU finally began to feed O'Neal once UConn's lead had ballooned to six points. The Tiger frontcourt ended up outscoring the Huskies 32-17 on the night, and that disparity was on full display in the final minutes before Simmons subbed back into the game. It almost seemed like Thomas and O'Neal were passing to one another off shot attempts with back-to-back putback slams coming together for the Bayou Bengal Bigs. With the score 51-50 at the 13 minute-mark, Simmons returned to the action. On his first defensive possessions, Rip Hamilton drove the lane and found little resistance, finishing with ease over a tentative Simmons. This tactic would continue for the Huskies, who were determined to bring the action to the LSU defense.
Not only did the Huskies get to the line a staggering 33 times, but they succeeded in fouling out Simmons after just 18 minutes of game action. Despite their success at the line, LSU found themselves down five points with 1:03 remaining in the game. Bob Pettit's baby hook in the lane cut the lead to three, and a steal by Pistol Pete with 37 seconds remaining set the stage for a memorable ending. Maravich blew by Kemba Walker but pulled back for a three-pointer that found the bottom of the net. After a lengthy review, it was determined that his right foot was indeed behind the line, which meant that the Huskies would have the ball with 28 seconds remaining in a tied ball game.
The final play drawn up by Calhoun looked a lot like Kemba Walker's game-winning stepback against Pitt in the 2011 Big East tournament. Walker dribbled the clock down to ten seconds before crossing the court and starting his drive. He crossed over Maravich and hopped back for a would-be jumper, before Chris Jackson came to double. This left Ray Allen open at the opposite wing for a buzzer-beating trey. Allen cooly swished the shot before Hamilton gave him a bear hug with the entire bench storming the court to celebrate.
UConn advances to the Legendary Madness championship game to take on Lew Alcindor and the UCLA Bruins.