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SOUTH REGIONAL Whew! Longhorns hang tough, holding off Connecticut, 82-78



Published: Tue, April 1, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Texas earned its first regional final berth since 1990.

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- There it was. An entire season for Texas and Connecticut wedged between the backboard and the rim with the Longhorns holding a two-point lead.

Whistles blew, the clock stopped with 35 seconds left and 33,009 people at the Alamodome didn't know whether to cheer or groan.

Connecticut Jim Calhoun coach could only smile. What else could he do?

A Texas player popped the ball out and it dropped through the basket, the Huskies' chances falling with it.

Given the chance to hold the lead, the Longhorns got four straight free throws from Royal Ivey and T.J. Ford to send them to an 82-78 victory in the South Regional semifinals Friday night.

The win earned Texas (25-6) its first berth in a regional final since 1990 and denied the Huskies (23-10) a return trip.

Connecticut was close, especially when Marcus White went for a tying lay-up. But the shot was blocked by Brian Boddicker and the ball got stuck.

The possession arrow pointed to Texas.

"It thought we were a heartbeat away or something happening away from winning," Calhoun said. "It was a weird play."

Dramatic game

The frozen shot was only part of the drama.

Ford, Texas' stellar point guard, sat out five minutes of the second half with foul trouble and the Huskies rallied from a 14-point deficit to take the lead.

He returned in the nick of time and saved Texas once again when he set up go ahead baskets and free throws with passes to Brandon Mouton and James Thomas.

"T.J. is the floor general," Ivey said. "We told ourselves we have to step up our game up or we're going to go home."

Mouton, who scored just six points in a second-round win over Purdue, had a career-high 27, including four 3-pointers.

Ford provided the finishing touch when his two free throws with 11.8 seconds left gave Texas its four-point cushion.

He capped it off when he stripped the ball from UConn's Emeka Okafor on the other and sprinted up court to the cheers from the decidedly pro-Texas crowd that had made the 80-mile drive down from Austin and turned the Alamodome in the Longhorns' home court.

"At the end of the game, me and Brandon looked up and saw how many fans we had the in the building," said Ford, who finished with 13 points and nine assists. "It was great."

UConn had nearly quieted the burnt-orange arena with its second-half rally.

The Huskies were down 62-48 before staging a furious comeback. An 8-0 cut it 62-56 and sent Ford to the bench with four fouls when he bumped Taliek Brown with 10:30 left to play.

"They had made up their mind they were going to drive it right at him as hard as they could," said Texas coach Rick Barnes.

"He's not a serial killer or nothing, and I was supposed to be scared of him?" Brown said.

After a timeout, Texas committed a turnover, Ben Gordon hit a 3-pointer and two free throws by Emeka Okafor cut it to 64-61.




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