Huskies Dog Brand and Co., All Night Long
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 30, 1999; Page D6
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., March 29 For four days here, the Duke Blue Devils insisted they could be beaten, if only someone could find a way to control their 6-foot-8, 260-pound sophomore center Elton Brand. The Connecticut Huskies, unlike the rest of Duke's opponents the past three months, finally found a way to do so.
By holding the consensus national player of the year to 15 points and by constantly attacking Duke's defense, Connecticut snapped the Blue Devils' winning streak at 32 games and claimed an unlikely national championship with a 77-74 victory tonight at Tropicana Field.
It might have been the last college basketball game for Brand, who could become the first major Duke player to leave school early for the NBA. But he wasn't talking about that tonight, not after coming so close to winning a championship and only to fall just short.
"Right now," he said, "I just want to be with this team. [Turning pro] is not something I've even thought about at this point."
If he departs, he'll do so following one of the more frustrating performances of his college career.
He posted 13 rebounds and scored 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field, but he was continually denied the ball inside by Connecticut center Jake Voskuhl. He spent most of the evening hounding Brand, frequently leaving the offensive side of the court early to make sure he was in position to defend. Wherever Brand went, Voskuhl or his backups, Souleymane Wane and Edmund Saunders followed, usually helped by one or more teammates.
"It was frustrating," Brand said. "I didn't know where all those guys kept coming from. ... It was tough."
Brand went scoreless in the last eight minutes of the game and at one point had his shot stuffed by the lumbering Voskuhl, who took just one shot and grabbed only three rebounds in 28 minutes. "It was great team defense," Voskuhl said. "I got help from everyone and everywhere."
Brand struggled to establish position in the low post and was replaced by freshman forward Corey Maggette for part of the first half. Brand also struggled in a national semifinal Saturday night against Michigan State, getting into foul trouble early and committing his fourth foul in the middle of the second half after trying to dribble the length of the court and being called for charging.
For much of the final, it appeared the Blue Devils could overcome Brand's off night, compensating with the sharpshooting of fifth-year senior guard Trajan Langdon, who finished with 25 points, including 5 of 10 from three-point range.
Connecticut's defense on Brand, "should have opened up more for us," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "There were more than enough shots out there for us to have won." But the Blue Devils shot a season-low 41.1 percent for the game.
Langdon had a chance to put Duke ahead late in the game, but was called for traveling as he drove the lane with 5.4 seconds remaining. Langdon, who endured Duke's 13-18 season in 1994-95 when Krzyzewski missed much of the year recovering from back problems, is a projected first-round NBA draft choice.
"This was definitely the best Duke team I've been a part of," Langdon said, "and what happened tonight can't take away what a special season this was."
While U-Conn. dictated the tempo from the start, Duke calmly answered each Huskies run. Although Brand was held scoreless through the first 10 minutes and to just five points in the first half, Maggette contributed three field goals.
Langdon, who endured a 3-for-9 shooting outing in the semifinal against Michigan State, connected on 3 of 5 from three-point range in the first half, including a four-point play over Ricky Moore that pulled Duke ahead, 39-36, with 24 seconds left in the first half. Throughout their run to the NCAA championship, the Blue Devils had rarely been challenged, winning by an average margin of 25.4 points during the regular season and 25.2 points in their first five NCAA tournament games.
"They put the pressure on us all game and were tough to defend," Krzyzewski said. "They made the plays and we didn't in the last minute and that's what usually determines close ballgames."
Brand, who averaged 17.8 points and 9.7 points per game, is projected as the first or second pick in the NBA draft, although he has not made a decision whether to go pro. He would become the first major Duke player to leave early in Krzyzewski's 19-year career at the school. Stars such as Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill turned down opportunities to turn pro early and remained the full four years.
Brand might not be the only early departure. Point guard William Avery, an honorable mention all-American performer, also could leave early following a breakout season.
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