The national champions are one and done, thanks to Iowa State.
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When Jim Calhoun and Connecticut will be back in the NCAA tournament is anybody’s guess.
”We’re talking about tonight’s game. We’re not talking about me,” Calhoun said after Iowa State’s 77-64 victory over Connecticut in the NCAA tournament Thursday night. ”I’m going to get on the plane tomorrow, go home and do what I usually do and meet up with the team on Monday. My own personal thing, I don’t think it has any relevance, to be honest with you.”
Chris Allen led four Cyclones in double figures with 20 points, and Iowa State scored its last 14 at the free-throw line to beat UConn, the first time since UCLA in 1996 that the defending champs have lost in the opening game. Calhoun didn’t even wait for the final buzzer, heading for halfcourt with about four seconds left to congratulate Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg.
It is only the second loss in the opening game of the NCAA tournament for UConn.
For the eighth-seeded Cyclones, meanwhile, it’s their biggest victory in a season of them, having knocked off Kansas and Baylor during Big 12 play.
Royce White had a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Scott Christopherson also had 15 for the Cyclones. Iowa State shot 48 percent from the floor and had a whopping 41-24 edge in rebounds.
Next up for Iowa State: Overall No. 1 seed Kentucky in the third round of the South Regional on Saturday. The Wildcats routed Western Kentucky earlier on Thursday.
For the Huskies, the future is far less certain. This could be Connecticut’s last tournament until at least 2014, with the Huskies facing a ban on tournament play next year because of the past academic problems. Although Calhoun insists he hasn’t made any retirement plans, he’s had a history of health problems — he’s a three-time cancer survivor — and he turns 70 in May.
”This game was a disappointment; this season was not a disappointment to me,” Calhoun said. ”I knew this team could be really good, but we just didn’t reach that level.”
Shabazz Napier led the Huskies with 22, and Jeremy Lamb had 19. But Connecticut could never get into a rhythm and had no answer for the quicker, more aggressive Cyclones.
”It’s very disappointing to have to end the season this way,” Napier said.
The Cyclones arrived in Louisville with no shortage of swagger, smirking when asked if they were intimidated by the defending national champions.
And they wasted no time backing up their big talk, jumping on the Huskies from the opening tip. It took Calhoun less than two minutes before he’d seen enough, jumping up to call a timeout.
”We wanted to attack the boards more and whatever 3s we got, we took,” Allen said. ”At the end of the day, we were trying to get it in, get rebounds and do all the little stuff.”
After leading by as much as 22 in the first half, Iowa State (23-10) withstood a UConn rally in the second half. Ryan Boatright went on a one-man tear, making three consecutive baskets to pull Connecticut within 58-52 with 8:24 to play.
”Once we cut it to six, I felt like if we dug down a little deeper maybe it would crack,” Boatright said.
But the Huskies (20-14) couldn’t get any closer, missing their next four shots and going scoreless for more than 5 1/2 minutes.
Iowa State, meanwhile, got a big layup from Bubu Palo and an even bigger bucket from Allen.
Allen has played more NCAA tournament games than any player in the 68-team field after making back-to-back Final Fours with Michigan State in 2009 and 2010, and his experience showed. He chased down his miss on a 3 from the corner and went up and under the basket, scoring to put Iowa State back in front 63-52 with 4:15 to play.
UConn could never make another run, and all the Cyclones had to do was convert their free throws. As the game wound down, White pointed at Iowa State’s radio crew and said, ”I told you, didn’t I?”
NCAA investigations and questions about Calhoun’s future have clouded the glow from UConn’s third national title all season.
Calhoun sat out the first three games of the Big East season for failure to maintain control of his program when it was charged with NCAA violations. Boatright missed nine games, including six at the beginning of the season, after an NCAA investigation found he and his family took more than $8,000 in impermissible benefits before he enrolled at Connecticut.
Despite the turmoil, the Huskies won 12 of their first 13 games.
Then things fell apart, in spectacular fashion.
UConn lost 11 of its next 16, including a 21-point blowout by Louisville followed by an 18-point rout at the hands of Syracuse. Back problems forced Calhoun to take a monthlong leave, and the Huskies went 3-5 in his absence. He returned for the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh after back surgery, and UConn responded with three consecutive wins before losing a close one to Syracuse in the Big East tournament.
"I discovered being away for the team for eight games and almost four weeks that this team, and I think I might have expressed this yesterday, that this team put a great deal pressure on itself for no reason," Calhoun said. "You asked about last year, last year is last year, finished, complete. To make any comparisons is not valid because it’s not the same team.
Though Calhoun talked about having a second chance in the tournament, Iowa State put a quick end to that.
”You saw the game,” Calhoun said, ”we played very poorly. We deserved to lose the game.”