UConn, Tech squeak by

Huskies, Okafor storm back with 12-0 run, top Duke, 79-78

Out 1st half with fouls, center hits 18

Lead evaporates as Devils repeat ACC fade vs. Terps

Final Four

April 04, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - Do you believe in repeats?

Duke repeated its late-game fold from last month's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game defeat to Maryland, watching an eight-point lead with a little under 3 1/2 minutes left disintegrate as Connecticut scored 12 straight points to win last night's second NCAA tournament semifinal at the Alamodome, 79-78.

The victory put Connecticut (32-6) into tomorrow's championship game against Georgia Tech, which shocked Oklahoma State, 67-65. (The combined margin of defeat was the closest for any two semifinals in the tournament's history.) The Yellow Jackets beat the Huskies, then ranked No. 1, by 16 early in the season. It will mark Connecticut's first appearance in the final since beating Duke in 1999.

Junior center Emeka Okafor led the Huskies with 18 points, all of them in the second half after the All-American played less than four minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. Okafor scored the go-ahead basket with 26 seconds remaining, then helped the Huskies put the final clamp on the Blue Devils.

Junior guard Ben Gordon also scored 18, and junior swingman Rashard Anderson added 14. Freshman forward Luol Deng led Duke (31-6) with 16 points and 12 rebounds, while junior guard J.J. Redick and senior guard Chris Duhon added 15. The Huskies shot 62 percent in the second half, making 15 of 24 shots, while the Blue Devils missed 16 of the 28 they attempted.

"I told our kids, one thing that Duke has besides terrific talent, they've got a champion's heart. The only way you're going to beat them is to beat them," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. "With us trailing by eight, our champion's heart arose and we made six straight stops."

The two most important ones came after Okafor put in a rebound follow of his own miss.

With Duke trailing 76-75, Redick drove the lane, but was stripped by Anderson, who was immediately fouled and made a pair of free throws. Redick then missed a straightaway three. After Okafor made the second of two free throws to give the Huskies a four-point lead, Duhon hit a three at the buzzer.

The ending was reminiscent for Duke of its last loss, to the Terps in Greensboro, N.C., when Shelden Williams fouled out with three minutes to go and the Blue Devils blew a 12-point lead. It marked only the third time in nine national semifinals that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski saw his team lose. He thought the Huskies had help.

As the final seconds ticked down, Krzyzewski was heard yelling at the referees, "You killed us. You killed us. You killed us."

It wasn't the officials, as much as it was Okafor. After picking up two fouls in a 46-second span and taking a seat on the bench with 16:05 left in the first half, Okafor watched an early 11-point lead disappear. The Huskies trailed 41-34 at halftime, and by as many as 11 early in the second half.

"It was one of the most difficult things I had to do," Okafor said about sitting out most of the first half. "My first time in the Final Four and I didn't want to miss a minute. I was going to miss 16. It was eating me up inside."

The Blue Devils, meanwhile, were eating up the Huskies inside. If not for freshman center Josh Boone (South Carroll), who had 11 of his game-high 14 rebounds and seven of his nine points in the first half, UConn's deficit might have been larger. Duke's dominance inside continued early in the second half with Okafor back but playing tentatively.

But after Duke built its lead to 45-34 on a tip-in by Luol Deng early in the second half, the Huskies kept chipping away. They cut their deficit twice to one, first at 59-58 on a baseline jumper by Okafor and later to 63-62 on a fadeaway jumper by reserve forward Denham Brown. Duke answered with seven straight points to lead 70-62 on a drive by Duhon with 5:20 to go.

Williams fouled out on Connecticut's next possession, and Duke fell apart.

Not only did Williams foul out, but so did reserves Shavlik Randolph and Nick Horvath. Randolph had hurt the Huskies earlier, scoring 13 points and pulling down six rebounds, but he played only 14 minutes.

"Once me and Shavlik went out, they really took advantage of it," Williams said. "Painful."

It was painful for Krzyzewski, who lost only his third national semifinal in 10 trips and the first since 1989. The loss also denied him the chance to tie legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith (65) as the NCAA tournament's all-time leader in victories.

"You know it's tough for it to end," said Krzyzewski. "But this has been a great team. It's a great team because it had a great leader. Duhon was spectacular again. He's been spectacular for four years. It's a very difficult game to lose, but if I'm going to lose it, I'd lose it with these kids."

The defeat prevented a chance for the first-ever All-ACC national championship game and the fourth involving teams from the same conference. It will give the Huskies a chance to redeem themselves for their second-worst defeat of the year, a 77-61 loss in the Preseason NIT semifinals.

Boone is looking forward to the rematch with the Yellow Jackets.

"I'd love another shot at Georgia Tech," said Boone, who got into early foul trouble and played sparingly in that game. "I'm really glad that we got it."

Sun staff writer Gary Lambrecht contributed to this article.

TOMORROW'S CHAMPIONSHIP

MATCHUP: Ga Tech (28-9) vs. UConn (32-6)

SITE: Alamodome, San Antonio

TIME: 9:18 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

LINE: UConn by 6

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