UConn takes title

Posted: Tuesday, April 06, 2004

SAN ANTONIO Best at the beginning, even better at the end, the Connecticut Huskies closed out the season by easily winning the title they expected all along.

Led by 24 points from Emeka Okafor and 21 from Ben Gordon, UConn outclassed Georgia Tech 82-73 on Monday night for the national championship.

Connecticut became the first team since the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats to win the title after being ranked first in the preseason. The Huskies wound up on top of the college basketball world, thanks to the tall, quick, deep and talented roster assembled by coach Jim Calhoun.

''Going wire-to-wire is one of the hardest things you can do, and it wasn't just the beginning of the year for us,'' he said. ''This wire-to-wire went September to April, and that's as hard as it gets.''

The Huskies looked like champions from start to finish in the title game, running when they wanted, controlling the middle at other times, grabbing just about every loose ball and making the Yellow Jackets look ordinary.

''You can't win with one player,'' forward Rashad Anderson said. ''That's what everyone overlooks. If you shut down Emeka and Ben, somebody else is going to beat you.''

On Tuesday, tiny Storrs, Conn. the home of the Huskies could become the undisputed capital of the basketball universe. The women's team takes on Tennessee in the title game in New Orleans, and with a win, Connecticut would become the first school to sweep both championships.

Whatever happens there, this was a job well done by Calhoun.

The 32-year coaching veteran missed making the Basketball Hall of Fame by one vote this week. But after the way he built and guided this team, it's hard to imagine why. He coached UConn to its second championship in six seasons, and joined Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only active coaches with multiple titles.

Some say the Huskies' success starts with Okafor, the Final Four's most outstanding player. He grabbed 15 rebounds to record the 24th double-double of a season that was marked by persistent injuries. Prowling the lane on both ends, using his lanky 6-foot-10 frame to block two shots and alter dozens more, he dominated on offense and negated Tech's Aussie center, Luke Schenscher.

Okafor's mother and father who grew up in Nigeria and found success in America were in the stands watching.

''I knew he'd be good, but not this good,'' said his dad, Pius.

Early in the second half, Okafor kept his hands straight up and denied three straight Tech attempts to get the ball close to the basket. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt simply buried his head in his hands and turned around toward the crowd. He couldn't believe there wasn't a foul or maybe he just couldn't stomach what was happening.

By that point, the lead had grown to 20, and although a furious Tech rally cut the deficit to seven in the final seconds, the outcome was never in doubt.

''We were going to fight until the last buzzer,'' Tech guard Marvin Lewis said. ''All we can do is keep our heads up because we fought as hard as we could.''

But UConn proved to be too powerful, too multidimensional.

Gordon, a junior who led the team in scoring this season, hit all three of his 3-pointers during the first 20 minutes to help the Huskies take a 15-point lead at halftime. His backcourt mate, Taliek Brown, bounced back from a rough game in UConn's semifinal win over Duke to finish with nine points, six rebounds and four assists.

Josh Boone, Rashad Anderson, Charlie Villanueva ... the list goes on and on. No fewer than 10 UConn players made significant contributions in this one.

Anderson celebrated at the end of the game by running around the court with the game ball, laughing and holding his index finger in the air as Okafor chased him. They eventually hugged a fond farewell for Okafor, a junior who earned his degree in three years and will almost surely leave for the NBA.

Anderson and Okafor hooked up beautifully just before halftime, when Okafor snatched a missed free throw, turned and, while still airborne, threw to Anderson, who dribbled to the top of the key and swished a shot at the buzzer. The Huskies pulled it off in five seconds, and looked as if they were the only ones on the floor, instead of playing against five Yellow Jackets.

Tech got nine points and 11 rebounds from Schenscher. Will Bynum led the Jackets with 17 and B.J. Elder had 14, but they simply couldn't shoot on this night. That they shot just 38 percent from the field was understandable, given they were going against Okafor and a lineup that included two more 6-10 guys.

But 12-for-21 from the free-throw line? That was a killer, and it allowed the Huskies to push the lead to double digits much more easily than they might have.

''You know, it happens like that some nights,'' Hewitt said.

Losing always hurts, but it was hard to deem this season a failure for Tech.

The team from the campus in downtown Atlanta was picked to finish seventh this season in the nine-team Atlantic Coast Conference, but instead made it to its first Final Four since 1990 and its first title game.

''We may not have one name that people can latch on to, so we're somewhat nondescript,'' Hewitt said. ''But this has been an excellent basketball team the whole season.''

The first inkling that this could be a big year for Tech came in November, in the preseason NIT, when the Jackets dismantled UConn 77-61 to knock the Huskies out of the top spot in the poll.

Okafor's back was hurting then. The UConn team that showed up for the final barely resembled the one from last fall.

''The difference between this game and the preseason NIT was that this was the national championship game,'' Gordon said, ''plain and simple.''

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