Shooting star Anderson lights UConn's way

6 threes in 1st half vs. Ala. just latest for sophomore

Final Four

March 30, 2004|By Matt Eagan | Matt Eagan,THE HARTFORD COURANT

Rashad Anderson watched from his rump as the ball settled through the net. He looked at the official, almost on a lark, pleading for a foul but got no satisfaction.

His sixth three of the first half would not be a four-point play, but it was the exclamation point of Connecticut's brilliant first half Saturday.

The Huskies were going to beat Alabama and make it to the Final Four.

Anderson hoisted himself off the floor and began to run back on defense, but as he went he saw some familiar faces watching and turned to them.

Then he winked.

"As long as it's not derogatory to the opponent, I love seeing kids have fun playing basketball," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "We want to make sure we respect all of our opponents, but I want to see our whole team jacked up before playing, no matter who we play, so that we have an awful lot of fun."

This is a theme Calhoun picked up in early February after Ben Gordon conceded that the strain of expectation was dragging at the Huskies. As the nation sets to turn its lonely eyes back to UConn, some national wags are insisting this is still the truth.

Do not believe it.

The Huskies are a changed team and Anderson is one of the reasons. He is Ringo with a jump shot.

Consider the oft-told tale of Calhoun's in-home visit with Anderson, back when the sophomore guard was a high school senior being recruited by UConn, Florida and, among others, Alabama.

On that night, Anderson greeted a startled Calhoun in a Buckwheat costume. Calhoun would later recall thinking, "What have I got myself into?"

The answer would turn out to be the Final Four.

Make no mistake. Gordon and Emeka Okafor are the stars and Taliek Brown is the engine that drives this team. Anderson will tell you as much.

But if Duke's J.J. Redick is the player who can't be left open at the Final Four, Anderson may be the player who can't be guarded. For him, defense is almost irrelevant. All it means is that he's going to have to shoot from a little farther away and that is no great inconvenience.

"He raises their team to a whole different level," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said.

There are facts to back that. Anderson has started 10 of the past 11 games for UConn. The Huskies are 10-0 when he has started; 0-1 when he has not. He is averaging 14.9 points as a starter and is shooting 43.8 percent on threes in those 10 games.

"When Denham Brown got hurt, we looked around as what was the best way to solve this," Calhoun said. "Rashad was playing so well but it was a hard decision because I loved him coming off the bench."

The logic is easy to understand. Anderson was a potential game-changer off the bench.

"Sometimes I think he was at the scorer's table taking his first jump shots," Calhoun said before playing Vanderbilt in the third round. "He really comes off the bench and throws daggers and hurts the other team."

Calhoun has always valued these players.

His prototype was John Gwynn, the little guard who could score points in bunches for a team that sometimes struggled to shoot it straight. The idea is to have a guy for that moment when the game bogs down into stalemate. A guy that can thunder in a few threes and melt the opposition's will.

The Huskies do not have that with Anderson starting and Denham Brown struggling to regain his confidence.

So far, in the NCAA tournament, they have not needed it because there have been no stalemates. The Huskies average halftime lead has been 17.8 points. That has led some to question whether the Huskies have been sufficiently tested.

Calhoun has the answer.

"We played Pittsburgh and with seven minutes to go we were down 11 and we won," Calhoun said. "We were out of it with Villanova and we came back to win in overtime. And I could keep going. I don't think we need life-and-death struggles to be a very good basketball team. These kids have been through enough this year that a tight game isn't going to change anything."

Examine Calhoun's brief list. Against Pittsburgh, Anderson hit two huge threes in the Huskies' rally. The first cut the Panthers' lead from seven to four with a little more than six minutes left in the second half. The second gave the Huskies their first lead of the second half, 57-56, with two minutes left.

Against Villanova, he hit a three with 7 seconds left that tied the game and forced overtime.

Perhaps, it's time to listen to what Anderson has been saying all along and what he said again after he had helped his team into the Final Four.

"Nothing scares me on the basketball court," Anderson said.

NOTE: Okafor underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test on his neck and right shoulder yesterday, and the results were reported as normal.

The junior center felt numbness in his right arm after being struck where the neck and shoulder meet Saturday in the first half of the Huskies' victory against Alabama.

He tried to play in the second half but left after four minutes, holding his right arm. He said he could have played if the game had become close.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

At a glance

At Alamodome, San Antonio

Saturday's semifinals

Oklahoma State (31-3) vs. Georgia Tech (27-9) Time: 6:07 p.m. Line: Oklahoma State by 5

Connecticut (31-6) vs. Duke (31-5) Time: 8:47 p.m. Line: Connecticut by 2 Monday's championship game

Semifinal winners, 9:18 p.m.

TV: All games on chs. 13, 9

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