UConn in cruise control

Champion Huskies avenge early-season rout, roll by Georgia Tech, 82-73

UConn jumps out by 25, holds on

Center Okafor's 24 points, 15 rebounds lead the way

Ncaa Championship

April 06, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - Connecticut did more than erase the memory of an early-season 16-point defeat to Georgia Tech last night in the NCAA tournament final at the Alamodome. The Huskies obliterated it, and the Yellow Jackets in the process.

With junior All-America center Emeka Okafor dominating inside, guards Ben Gordon and Rashad Anderson controlling the perimeter, and Georgia Tech self-destructing everywhere, Connecticut cruised to an 82-73 victory that wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicated.

On a day when Huskies coach Jim Calhoun lost an election to the Basketball Hall of Fame, Connecticut (33-6) won its second national title in the past five years. Should its women's team beat Tennessee tonight in New Orleans, it would mark the first double of its kind in history.

Okafor, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, led the Huskies with 24 points and 15 rebounds. Gordon scored 21 for the Huskies, and Anderson added 18. Will Bynum led Georgia Tech with 17 points, but poor free-throw shooting in the first half helped the Huskies open a 41-26 halftime lead.

"We did have a big lead at halftime and I wanted to make sure we were going to stand on the podium after the game," Calhoun said on the podium, where he accepted the championship plaque. "I wanted to make them play to catch us. Georgia Tech started making a lot of threes. More than I can count. That made me nervous."

Those nerves for Calhoun and his team's fans among the 44,468 in attendance turned to utter joy as the final seconds ticked down. When the horn sounded, senior point guard Taliek Brown tossed the ball high into the air. Anderson retrieved it, and Okafor playfully chased his teammate around the court.

Like the Yellow Jackets, Okafor couldn't catch him.

"It feels good," said Okafor, who has graduated already and is expected to declare himself eligible for this year's NBA draft. "We earned it. Georgia Tech was a great team. They came and played their hearts out. I have to give all the respect to them. We wanted it and we took it."

Nearly from the start, the Huskies were in control. Connecticut built a double-digit lead in the first 11 minutes and led by as many as 25 on two occasions in the second half before Georgia Tech found a measure of self-respect by cutting its deficit down to 80-73 in the final minute.

The one-sided nature of the game seemed to confirm what many were saying going into this year's Final Four: that the Connecticut-Duke semifinal, won by the Huskies, 79-78, on Saturday, was really the championship game. It also reconfirmed what many said all season: that the Huskies were the best team. They became the first team since the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats to win the title after being ranked first in the preseason.

The Huskies were a far different team than the one that lost to the Yellow Jackets at Madison Square Garden in New York in November, in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT. Okafor was bothered by back spasms and Gordon was hounded by the Georgia Tech guards all night.

"The difference between this game and the Preseason NIT was that this was the national championship game, plain and simple," said Gordon, who missed 12 of 17 shots but got to the foul line for nine free throws, hitting eight of them. "[In November] we didn't come ready to play. Tonight we showed we were more than ready."

Trailing 12-11, the Huskies went on an 11-0 run and were never threatened again. Leading by 15 points at halftime - the largest lead in a championship game since UCLA led Dayton by 18 in 1967 - the Huskies picked up where they left off.

Unfortunately for the Yellow Jackets, they too picked up where they left off and didn't seem to find their range until it was way too late.

Point guard Jarrett Jack, who had only two points in the first half, dribbled off his knee on a drive. B.J. Elder missed the first of two free throws. Forward Anthony McHenry stepped over the end line trying an inbounds pass.

"I don't think they took us out of our offense," said Georgia Tech guard Marvin Lewis, a senior from Germantown who finished with six points on 3-for-9 shooting. "They played great defense, but the shots didn't fall in the hole."

Georgia Tech finished the first half 10-for-34 from the field, but what killed any chance the Yellow Jackets had of making it a game was their free-throw shooting. They missed five straight foul shots to close the half, including the front end of three straight one-and-ones.

"Maybe after a few of those shots didn't fall, maybe we tried to press a little bit," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. "But that's natural. That's human nature. You're going to try harder. If things aren't working your way, you're going to try harder."

Not having enough problems of its own, Georgia Tech had to contend with some shaky officiating by a West Coast crew. Unlike the Duke semifinal, when the bad calls went both ways, these seemed to favor the Huskies.

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