Redemption, title could be just game away for UConn

Alamodome, Ga. Tech have inflicted past pain with Huskies as favorites

April 05, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - His team is occupying the same locker room and sitting on the same bench. One year after Connecticut lost here to Texas in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, the Huskies are hoping to reverse only the ending.

Getting back to the Alamodome was not the only goal Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun and his players carried with them for the past year. Winning a national championship was what the Huskies, particularly All-America center Emeka Okafor, dreamed about.

"That's been going on since we lost here last year," Okafor said yesterday. "I had a funny feeling, like `Man, something doesn't feel right. I feel like there's something more here.'

"The next day Coach said, `Hey, great season, and you know what? We could be back there next season to do it again.' Then it all made sense why I was feeling that way. I daydream about how it would feel to stand center stage at the Final Four as champions."

Forty minutes or more - and Georgia Tech - separate Connecticut from turning that dream into a reality. The Yellow Jackets and Huskies will meet tonight after surviving two heart-pounding semifinals on Saturday.

Georgia Tech (28-9) upset Oklahoma State, 67-65, on junior guard Will Bynum's driving layup with 1.5 seconds remaining. Connecticut (32-6) used a 12-0 run in the last 3 1/2 minutes to race past Duke, 79-78.

The victory set up a rematch of an early-season blowout, won by the Yellow Jackets, 77-61, over the then top-ranked Huskies in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Neither team seems to be put credence into the result.

"It seems like a lifetime ago," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who is looking for his second national championship in five years on a day when he'll find out whether he has been elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame. "I know they ran us off the floor."

Said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who is looking to win the school's first national championship in its first NCAA final: "We played well. We played great defense that day. Only Jim can answer how his team played, but I've seen his team play better."

The Huskies are making no secret that they are looking for a little payback.

"We've talked about the fact that it's been in the back of our minds," said freshman forward Josh Boone, a South Carroll High alum who had a game-high 14 rebounds to go along with nine points against Duke. "We have a little redemption on our minds."

Senior point guard Taliek Brown was even more succinct.

"I think it's going to be a revenge game," Brown said.

If anything, the Yellow Jackets know that they can play with Connecticut. Even though Okafor had back spasms throughout the game, and backup Charlie Villanueva was not yet eligible, Georgia Tech's dominating performance is good for the team's collective psyche.

"I think it can be an advantage and it can be a disadvantage," said senior guard Marvin Lewis, whose 15 first-half points were critical to the Yellow Jackets taking a comfortable halftime lead (37-30) and never allowing Oklahoma State to gain control. "For us, we're going in there and not worrying about how we played the last time."

Both teams are shaped differently than they were four months ago.

Connecticut now starts Rashad Anderson at small forward in place of Denham Brown, Boone is so much more a presence than he was early in the season, and Villanueva gives the Huskies another big, athletic player off the bench.

But the biggest difference could be Okafor. After playing less than four minutes in the first half against Duke, Okafor dominated the second half, scoring all of his 18 points in the final 19 minutes, including the go-ahead basket with 26 seconds to play.

Asked yesterday about the changes in his team, Okafor said: "First of all, we're more confident. The roles are more defined. Everybody knows what they can and can't do. Back then, we were trying to figure out the starting line. All of our players are now 100 percent healthy. It's the ultimate test of tests to see if we can put to use what we've learned."

Back then, the Yellow Jackets were still trying to figure out what kind of team they would be without Chris Bosh, who left after his freshman season and became the fourth pick in the NBA draft. Junior center Luke Schenscher was considered gangly and raw. Will Bynum, a transfer from Arizona, was not yet eligible and backup center Theodis Tarver was recuperating from a dislocated knee.

It wasn't until a trip to Tennessee that Hewitt had a feeling that his team had the capability of playing late into March, and possibly into early April.

"I thought in the early part of the season, we basically did it just on transition offense-defense, rebound and transition offense," Hewitt said. "For the whole month of January. I'm sure they were getting tired about it, I kept talking about half-court offense. `You've got to get better in the half-court offense.'"

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