UConn comeback nixes Blue Devils

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2004

SAN ANTONIO With a stunning end to a game that looked lost, Connecticut added another twist to an already impressive season. The Huskies proved they can win the close ones, too.

Led by All-American Emeka Okafor's darts, ducks and spins, UConn scored 12 straight points down the stretch Saturday night to rally for a 79-78 win over Duke and moved one game away from the national title.

Okafor, who spent almost all of the first half on the bench in foul trouble, scored five points, grabbed three rebounds and shut down Duke's offense during the last four minutes, after Duke had taken a 75-67 lead.

''Nobody was really nervous,'' UConn guard Taliek Brown insisted. ''We just kind of kept our heads up and kept going hard. It was a real ugly game for us, but we just went to 'Mek' a lot and just rode him down the stretch.''

The 6-foot-10 center, who can do a little of everything, finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.

In Monday night's final, the Huskies will play Georgia Tech, a 67-65 winner over Oklahoma State earlier Saturday. UConn will go for its first championship since 1999, when it beat Duke.

The Blue Devils, who led almost the entire game, walked away losers in their first Final Four appearance since 2001, when they won it all. Coach Mike Krzyzewski lost a tough one, and will have to wait until next year to go for his 65th all-time NCAA tournament win, which would tie him for the record with North Carolina's Dean Smith.

''I don't think anything will make this pain go away,'' Duke guard Sean Dockery said.

Connecticut hadn't been challenged in the tournament at all, winning its four games by an average of about 17 points.

That all changed Saturday.

Saddled with two fouls in the first four minutes that sent UConn coach Jim Calhoun into a tizzy against the refs, Okafor languished on the bench for the rest of the half. He wound up with no points and one rebound before halftime.

''It was eating me up inside,'' Okafor said. ''I knew I just couldn't stay sour-faced for the whole half.''

Calhoun tried keeping his star's head in the game by telling him he might go back in.

''I lied to him,'' Calhoun conceded.

Duke took advantage, running the ball and pushing its lead to double figures early in the second half.

In the end, though, it was the Blue Devils' foul trouble that did them in. All three of their centers Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph and Nick Horvath fouled out. Krzyzewski was beside himself, and after one late foul, he yelled at referee Ted Hillary: ''You cheated us.''

Cheated or not, there was nobody to contain Okafor at game's end.

He gave UConn a 76-75 lead with 26 seconds left on a typically relentless sequence, missing a shot that bounced around the rim for a couple seconds, but grabbing the rebound out of Luol Deng's hands for an easy stick back.

''I just saw this orange object floating in the air, and it said 'Grab me,''' Okafor said. ''I grabbed it, spun, saw the rim, thought it would be a good idea to put it in, and that's what I did.''

Duke came down and guard J.J. Redick drove the lane, but guess who was there? Okafor, and he stuck a hand in to help break up that scoring chance.

UConn's Rashad Anderson hit two free throws to push the lead to three, and after Redick barely grazed the rim with a 3-point attempt that would have tied it, Okafor got the rebound and made a free throw to ice the game.

Chris Duhon banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the final margin to one. In interviews after the game, Krzyzewski got mad when someone suggested his team collapsed.

''Obviously, you didn't see the game tonight,'' he said.

The win for UConn the team that seems to have everything: versatile guards, four guys standing 6-10 or taller and, of course, Okafor might have answered one of the few questions remaining: Could they handle a close game?

The answer was an emphatic ''Yes.'' And now there's one more test to go, a rematch with the Yellow Jackets, who beat UConn 77-61 early in the season to knock the Huskies from the top spot in The Associated Press poll and let the nation know they were legit.

Georgia Tech will need to find an answer for UConn guard Ben Gordon, who kept the Huskies within striking range while Okafor languished on the bench. Gordon finished with 18 points, and did just enough to overshadow a difficult game by his backcourt mate, Brown, who had four points and seven turnovers.

But the real star was Okafor.

He controlled both ends of the floor over the final 20 minutes. Another great sequence came with about nine minutes left, when he launched himself up to swat a shot by Deng. UConn got the ball, worked it to Okafor near the baseline, where he hit a pretty little 12-footer to cut UConn's deficit to 59-58.

The game was just warming up, though.

Duke's Daniel Ewing, one of five Blue Devils in double figures, hit three buckets to keep his team ahead. The last of the shots, a 3-pointer with 4:36 left, gave Duke a 73-64 lead.

Anderson responded with a 3 for UConn, then Duhon made two free throws to push the lead back to eight. As it turned out, those were the last points Duke would score until Duhon's meaningless 3 at the buzzer.

''It's hard to explain this kind of loss,'' Ewing said.

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