Donald Watts had a simple message for a few of the Huskies he bumped into this week, guys like Jamaal Williams, Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones.
"Go silence some of my nightmares, man," Watts told them.
Those bad dreams began March, 19, 1998, when the Washington Huskies played what might have been the most memorable game in their history against the Connecticut Huskies in the Sweet 16, a contest UW lost 75-74 on a last-second shot by UConn guard Richard Hamilton.
It's the same matchup, in the same round, UW will have Friday night in Washington, D.C.
"Since they are playing again, it seems like every time I turn on the news they are showing the highlights," Watts said. "I keep my box of tissue close to me."
He says it with a laugh. But the what-might-have-beens will haunt those Huskies forever.
UW was a No. 11 seed in the tournament in Bob Bender's fourth year as coach. After a somewhat uneven season, they received one of the last at-large bids by winning their last three regular-season games.
But they hit their stride in the tournament, beating Xavier 69-68 on a shot with 11 seconds left by Deon Luton. Washington then clobbered No. 14 seed Richmond — which had beaten No. 3 seed South Carolina — 81-66 in what might have been Todd MacCulloch's best game as a Husky (31 points, 18 rebounds).
That set up the game in Greensboro, N.C., against No. 2 seed UConn, a Big East power led by current NBA star Hamilton. It was UW's second Sweet 16 appearance since 1953 (the other in 1984).
"We were really not feeling a whole lot of pressure," MacCulloch remembered this week. "We were just really glad to be there, having fun. Everybody was playing at a high level."
Still, UConn led 64-55 with just more than 10 minutes left and the inevitable Elite Eight matchup between Connecticut and North Carolina seemed all but set.
Then Bender inserted 7-foot reserve forward Patrick Femerling, pairing him with MacCulloch, which slowed the game down and allowed UW to rally.
"They really wore us out," UConn coach Jim Calhoun remembered Tuesday. "It got down to the last two, three minutes and I called a full timeout, which I never do, just to rest the team."
UConn still led 73-71 with less than a minute left when Bender called timeout.
Watts says Bender, now an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks, wanted to get the ball inside and tie the score.
"I was supposed to be the person to throw it inside, but I kind of knew I wasn't going to throw it inside," he said. "I felt it wasn't the time to try to tie the thing up but to put them away."
So Watts unloaded from three-point territory and hit — just UW's second three-pointer of the night — giving Washington its first lead of the game at 74-73 with 33 seconds left.
UConn called time and set up its own play, with point guard Khalid El-Amin dribbling the clock away until driving the lane with about eight seconds left. He passed to center Jake Voskuhl, whose shot from about 8 feet hit the rim and rolled off. Hamilton got the rebound and took another shot that missed, setting up a mad scramble for the ball.
MacCulloch, the fourth-leading rebounder in school history, said he still wonders "why I didn't grab the ball. ... I've watched the replay and I was able to get a hand on it, but not enough to grab it. I think if I had seen it better maybe I could have grabbed it. On the tape, it looked like I could have gotten both hands on it."
The ball also went off Femerling's hands, and Watts said he got a fingertip on it once or twice. "The ball just kept bouncing around and bouncing around," he said.
Hamilton finally got it again, and as time was running out and he began falling backwards in the lane, he lofted another shot that swished through as the buzzer sounded.
Not that anybody blames anybody, but some have wondered what might have happened had Femerling jumped and tried to alter Hamilton's shot.
"That would have been nice," MacCulloch said. "But the guy is falling down. I think Pat might have thought he couldn't even get the shot off. You don't want to foul. I thought that time was going to run out sooner."
Asked what he was thinking as he realized the game was over, Watts — who led UW with 22 points — said, "You can't write it."
In fact, he said he immediately thought of watching North Carolina's players walk off the court after the opening game and thinking that they looked smaller than their listed heights. "I had been thinking if we get past [UConn] it's the Final Four because Todd had been having field days with smaller teams," Watts said.
MacCulloch said he had brief "why us?" moments in the days and months that followed, but growing older made him realize that such games are just part of the NCAA tournament.
"I try not to torture myself that much and realize there are a lot of teams that get beat at the buzzer," MacCulloch said. "We lost to a good team and a good player."
MacCulloch played in the NBA for a few years before having to retire due to a nerve condition in his foot. He is now a broadcaster for the Philadelphia 76ers and sees Hamilton regularly. "He's a really nice guy and he's nice enough not to bring that up," MacCulloch said. "I don't think we've ever talked about it."
Calhoun on Tuesday called the shot the "second-most famous in UConn NCAA history," falling behind only a buzzer-beater by Tate George off a full-court pass in the Sweet 16 in 1990 that beat Clemson.
The UConn coach said it was "one of the most exhausting games I've ever been in and one of the most emotional games." So much so that guard Kevin Freeman had to be carried from the court on a stretcher because he'd lost so much fluid.
UConn lost two days later to North Carolina. But beating UW, Calhoun said, gave UConn some added confidence heading into the 1999 season, when the team — with largely the same roster — finally won its first NCAA title by beating Duke.
Washington, meanwhile, returned four of five starters, but lost point guard Jan Wooten to graduation and then Femerling decided during the summer to return to his native Germany to play professionally. UW made the tournament in 1999 but lost in the first round, beginning the descent of the Bender era.
Only Femerling, forward Thalo Green (overseas) and backup point guard Dan Dickau — who later transferred to Gonzaga and is now on the roster of the Celtics but sitting out with an injury — are apparently still playing professionally.
Watts played overseas and in American minor leagues for a few years but said his career was hampered by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which also bothered him during his UW days. He was diagnosed after leaving college and said he's now improving enough that he is trying to get back in shape to take another shot at playing. He also helps run the Hoopaholics Academy with former teammate Michael Johnson.
Luton is reportedly working in his native Oklahoma. Wooten, Chris Walcott and Chris Thompson are all reportedly living and working in the Seattle area.
All will likely be crouched near a TV Friday night, hoping these Washington Huskies can achieve what they just missed.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org