Hand of Okafor makes wreck out of Tech

April 06, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

SAN ANTONIO - As the final buzzer sounded, University of Connecticut center Emeka Okafor sprinted the length of the court with the No. 1 index finger high in the air.

And then for the next minute or so, he chased teammate Rashad Anderson around the court, trying to snatch away the game ball that Anderson had secured under his arm. Anderson kept the ball, and justice was not served.

In the second game of this Final Four, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Okafor carried the Huskies again, this time to an 82-73 victory over Georgia Tech in the NCAA men's basketball championship game.

There are other great college players in the country, but none of them can dominate a game like Okafor. The Houston resident put up 24 points and 15 rebounds last night. He was 10 of 17 from the field and four of eight from the foul line. Seven of his rebounds were at the offensive end.

Okafor's established presence in the middle last night was intimidating. He blocked two shots, and forced the Yellow Jackets to change trajectory on countless others.

Mr. Anderson, give the ball to the big man, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.

Okafor carried the Huskies last night, and played a great second half in the Huskies' semifinal victory over Duke. Giving Okafor the ball would have been a fitting end to an extremely successful college career.

Okafor won't come back next season. NBA scouts have projected him as at least a No. 3 pick in the draft. He is expected to earn his degree by the end of the semester, gathering enough credits during five semesters.

He is so smart that coach Jim Calhoun expects him to be addressed as Senator Okafor some day.

So, is he the next David Robinson or a junior Bill Russell?

Despite the brains and the body, no one really wanted Okafor coming out of high school. He was called a late bloomer, and all he has done is lead the Huskies to a national championship while scoring 1,000 points and grabbing 1,000 rebounds.

Last night Okafor was supposed to be challenged by Georgia Tech's 7-1 center, Luke Schenscher. The junior from Australia wasn't ready for prime time yet. Too skinny. He was also too methodical and slow. Space shuttles get into orbit faster than Schenscher, especially compared with Okafor.

Schenscher finished four of seven from the field and had 11 rebounds, but virtually no presence. There was no fear factor.

Meanwhile, Okafor finished Georgia Tech off with a jumper in the lane that made it 74-61 with 2:16 left, grabbing two rebounds in the final two minutes and making one of two foul shots in the last 23 seconds.

"[Emeka] did an outstanding job," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. "But I thought Luke did a good job as well. They had 18 offensive rebounds, we had 18 offensive rebounds. I thought we did some things against Emeka Okafor, but he kept his concentration. He had six turnovers, which our plan was to attack him, see if we could force some to those turnovers out of him, which we did, but we didn't capitalize at the other end.

"He's an outstanding player, probably the player of the year in college basketball."

If Georgia Tech, down by 15 at the half, was going to make a serious run, it seemed it would have to come within the first five minutes of the second half.

But within that time, Okafor scored five points and blocked three shots. He took control of the game. Oh sure, there were other key factors in the Huskies' victory. UConn's backcourt of Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown controlled the Yellow Jackets' guard combinations of Jarrett Jack, Will Bynum and Marvin Lewis. Connecticut also controlled the boards and shot 40.6 percent in the first half, compared with 29.4 for Georgia Tech.

But Schenscher can't control a game like Okafor. One of the reasons Georgia Tech has been so successful this season is because its guards are so quick, and they can penetrate, allowing them to go to the basket or dish off underneath.

But the Yellow Jackets were afraid to go inside last night. They feared the quick leap and the hot breath of Okafor crashing down on them. Forward Anthony McHenry tried, and Okafor smacked his shot into the first row 22 seconds into the second half. Forward Isma'il Muhammad seemed to have an easy layup with 16:30 left in the half, and Okafor came from nowhere to pin his shot against the glass. You could see the frustration on Muhammad's face, just like a child who has an ice cream cone knocked out of his hands.

It was that way all night. Even when Okafor was standing at the top of the key guarding Schenscher, the Yellow Jackets feared him. Because they didn't know when he would arrive.

But sooner or later, they knew he would be there.

"To tell you the truth, it hasn't hit me yet," said Okafor of winning the title. "It hasn't sunk in yet that the season is over, that we did what we wanted to do. I'm still in awe."

And so are the Yellow Jackets.

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