NCAA:Inside the Games

The Big East will have at least half the Final Four.

Connecticut, the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, beat Missouri 82-75 on Saturday for the first team to qualify of the Big East’s four that reached the regional finals.

The second berth was assured as soon as the East Regional semifinals were over on Thursday. Villanova earned the trip to Detroit with a 78-76 victory over top-seeded Pittsburgh in the final.

The Big East, which set records in this tournament with three No. 1 seeds, five teams in the round of 16 and the four in the regional finals, can match its own record with three in the Final Four if top-seeded Louisville can beat Michigan State in the Midwest Regional on Sunday.

“Obviously all of our games this year with all the top teams in the conference have been these type of battles,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said after the heartbreaking loss. “I thought this was just another well-played game down the stretch and all the way through and it’s just representative of our conference.

“I think, as I said before, it’s lived up to some very high expectations … and this game will go down and be another example of the caliber of play that was in the Big East this year and has continued to be.”

Villanova beat Georgetown in the all-Big East 1985 championship game and St. John’s also reached the Final Four that year, the only time one conference has had three teams in the national semifinals.

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NO ALL ONES: The No. 1 seeds won’t have a repeat of the history made last season.

When North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis and UCLA all reached the national semifinals last year, it was the first time that ever happened.

Third-seeded Villanova’s 78-76 win over Pittsburgh in the East Regional final on Saturday ended a chance at a repeat.

Top-seeded Connecticut won the West Regional on Saturday with an 82-75 victory over Missouri. The other top seeds, North Carolina in the South and Louisville in the Midwest, both play Sunday.

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JUST DESERTS: Connecticut’s third Final Four appearance came just like the other two, from a regional final in Arizona.

The Huskies advanced through Phoenix in 1999 and 2004, and went on to win the national championship both times.

Saturday’s 82-75 victory over Missouri in the West Regional final was played in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix.

“I’m buying a house. I purchased land yesterday afternoon,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said with a laugh. “It is a great area. The people have been absolutely fantastic. This is not like playing at the Meadowlands, trust me. The guys at the Meadowlands tell you get your stuff in the locker room and move. We got hockey tonight. … My point being the people are incredibly gracious. And really from our team standpoint, we are away. They’re away. Last night we went to a Mexican restaurant. Two nights ago we went to Chase Field and sat out in left field and it really is enjoying the experience. Yet, being focused on what we have to do. Having very little around us to really detract from the experience.”

In all three Final Four runs Calhoun missed all or part of a game in the early rounds because of illness. In 1999, he missed the first-round win over Texas-San Antonio and in 2004, he missed most of the second half of the second-round victory over DePaul.

Last week, in Philadelphia, he missed the opening-round over Chattanooga when he was treated for dehydration.

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STILL WAITING: Missouri’s wait for its first Final Four appearance will continue as the Tigers lost 82-75 to top-seeded Connecticut in the West Regional final on Saturday.

“Obviously I hurt for our guys,” Missouri coach Mike Anderson said. “I thought I could get them to that magical place, and we just came up probably a couple of buckets, a stop here, a stop there. Maybe we just ran out of time, a couple minutes.”

Missouri’s last chance at advancing to the Final Four came in 2002, but the Tigers lost 81-75 to fellow Big 12 member Oklahoma, also in the West Regional.

Missouri’s other losses in the round of eight came in 1944, when only eight teams were in the tournament, 1976 and 1994.

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ALSO WAITING: Whichever team won the Villanova-Pittsburgh East Regional championship game would have ended a long spell of not reaching the Final Four.

Villanova’s 78-76 victory on Saturday sent the Wildcats to their first Final Four since their stunning run to the national championship in 1985.

“This was a group that I told them they earned this,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We could have lost this game, but they still would have earned the right to be good enough to play in a Final Four, just like Pitt did. Pitt is good enough to be a Final Four team. We just happened to win this game.”

Pittsburgh’s only trip to the Final Four was in 1941 when the tournament had just eight teams and the semifinals and finals weren’t even played at the same site.

“Obviously it’s a game that I guess people will talk about as far as a great game,” Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. “But right now all we’re reflecting on is it’s just a disappointment and loss.”

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DECEIVING STAT: Most experts said Missouri’s only chance to beat Connecticut in the West Regional final was to force the Huskies into turnovers, something the Tigers were able to do to opponents all season by averaging 10.2 steals per game.

They had 10 steals on Saturday and were able to force the Huskies into 17 turnovers, 4.5 above their season average, but it still wasn’t enough to avert an 82-75 loss.

“Really, I think a lot of people think that our press is set up to steal the ball and they base the success on that,” Missouri’s J.T. Tiller said. “But really, our press was pretty successful because it was meant to slow them down and get them out of what they were trying to do, which was run plays. It was pretty much successful. They just withstood it for 40 minutes, though.”

Connecticut had eight blocks, just better than their season average of 7.8, which led the nation for the eight straight season.

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ALMOST A RECORD: It won’t matter after a victory that earned Villanova a trip to the Final Four, but the Wildcats were one free throw from setting an NCAA tournament record.

The Wildcats made their first 21 free throws in the East Regional final against Pittsburgh. Reggie Redding went to the line for two free throws with 20 seconds left and Villanova leading 75-72. He missed the first, but made the second for a four-point lead. The Panthers tied the game at 76 on two free throws by Levance Fields with 5.5 seconds after Redding threw away an inbounds pass. He redeemed himself seconds later by inbounding the ball to start the play that resulted in Scottie Reynolds’ game-winning drive with 0.5 seconds left.

The Wildcats finished 22-for-23 from the line (95.7 percent), a mark that ranks seventh in NCAA tournament history for a team making at least 15 free throws.

Four teams have had perfect games from the line with Fordham’s 22-for-22 effort against South Carolina in 1971 the best.

 

Jim O’Connell/AP Basketball Writer