Connecticut runs away from Vanderbilt, 73-53

Team speed, rebounding lift No. 2-seeded Huskies

Gordon scores 20 points

Ncaa Regional

Phoenix

March 26, 2004|By Matt Eagan | Matt Eagan,THE HARTFORD COURANT

PHOENIX - The game was decided in the manner of a schoolyard fight. The first punch was the winning one and Connecticut landed it.

The siren call of superior talent had been sounding all week. Vanderbilt has no chance is what it said. This is the same old song the Huskies have heard all season and one to which they have sometimes danced. They listened again last night but only for a moment and only in the second half.

By that time the Commodores were too far behind.

This six-month odyssey has been bumpier than many anticipated for the Huskies, but they can see welcoming lights at the end of the road. They are 40 minutes from San Antonio and the NCAA tournament's Final Four.

Ben Gordon led four players in double figures with 20 points as second-seeded Connecticut defeated No. 6 seed Vanderbilt, 73-53, in the Phoenix Regional semifinal before 17,684 at America West Arena.

The Huskies will play another Southeastern Conference opponent, Alabama, tomorrow in the round of eight.

"All we want at Connecticut, every single year, is to win a Big East championship and put ourselves in position to be national players," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "That's our goal every single year. We push and strive for that, and so to be in a regional final is terrific, but we're going to want more."

Rashad Anderson had 15 points, Emeka Okafor had 12 points and 11 rebounds, and Taliek Brown scored 12 for UConn (30-6). Josh Boone had eight points and did important defensive work against Matt Freije, Vanderbilt's main gun.

Freije finished with eight points on 3-for-18 shooting. Corey Smith and Mario Moore each had 12 points for Vanderbilt (23-10). After the game, Freije was drained and dehydrated.

"Their athleticism and strength down low frustrated him," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "He was never able to get into a rhythm. We weren't going to win a lot of games this year without him being on the top of his game."

From the start it was clear that the Huskies were way too fast.

"Our speed changed the game from the opening eight or nine minutes of the game," Calhoun said. "One of the things I look at is the body language of the other team and they were coming out at us, and I could tell they were forcing shots."

The speed was also useful in the half court. The Huskies snatched loose ball after loose ball from frustrated Vanderbilt players. The edge even carried to the boards, where the Commodores lumbered and the Huskies flashed.

UConn outrebounded Vanderbilt, 44-21.

"Their speed hurt us a lot," Vanderbilt guard Mario Moore said. "They were moving the ball well and making shots with transitions and it wasn't our game."

The proof came as UConn outscored Vanderbilt 17-1 over seven minutes to take a 25-8 lead. The first two hoops in the run came on the offensive glass. Charlie Villanueva grabbed a Gordon miss and dunked, and Anderson grabbed an Okafor miss and scored.

Anderson was just getting started.

After a Gordon three, Anderson scored eight straight points as the Huskies began to feel the thrum of their transition game. The second three by Anderson came after Taliek Brown raced the ball into the defense and lobbed a pass back to Anderson on the left side.

At the other end, nothing was easy for the Commodores. Okafor let Dawid Przybyszewski wander on the first possession - a Vandy three - but not after that.

As for Freije, the Huskies locked him down all half. They started with Boone, but Villanueva and Hilton Armstrong also did work against him.

The Huskies led 45-27 at halftime but frittered that down to seven in the next eight minutes.

The Huskies had eight turnovers in those eight minutes. The Commodores outscored UConn 18-7 during the span and when Corey Smith hit a jump shot from the right wing it was 52-45.

Calhoun called timeout.

"I told them they were giving away a great opportunity," Calhoun said.

A three by Anderson halted the Vanderbilt run and started a stuttering, staggering 8-0 rally. This time, there was no comeback.

"Taliek drove into the defense and I just got open," Anderson said. "I love it when he does that because the defense has to collapse. I just got set and knocked it down."

"If a team is good enough to beat us, that's fine, but a team is going to have to beat us," Calhoun said. "I don't want to lose and that's what we are going to talk about over the next 48 hours."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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