8:05 PM ET, January 2, 2004
Tudor Fieldhouse, Houston, Texas
HOUSTON (AP) -- Emeka Okafor got a better homecoming than he expected.The junior center for No. 1 Connecticut treated his hometown crowd with 27 points and 14 rebounds and the Huskies rolled to their eighth straight win, 92-83 over Rice on Friday night."I wasn't nervous," Okafor said. "Before and during the games, friends and family were shouting my name. I just had to ignore them. This was a good test for us on the road and we passed it. This will make the team stronger."The Huskies (11-1) took the lead midway in the first half and never trailed again. Rice (8-3) pulled within 55-49 early in the second half but the Huskies' fast-breaking offense kept the Owls in check."We allowed him to do what he does best," Rice coach Willis Wilson said. "He's a great player. We want to play against players the caliber of Okafor. This was a great opportunity for us."And a failed one.Trailing 41-33 at halftime, the Owls came out running and got within six points with 12:37 to play on a free throw by Michael Harris but baskets by Okafor and Hilton Armstrong and a 3-pointer by Charlie Villanueva made it 62-50.The Owls had their chances but allowed the Huskies to make too many decisive runs."That's a demon we've got to overcome," Wilson said. "You cannot do that against the good basketball teams."Villanueva had 24 points for the Huskies, who boosted their record to 10-0 on the road as a top-ranked team.Okafor, a star at Houston Bellaire High School, got a big ovation when the starting lineups were introduced to the near sellout score of 4,653 at Autry Court. He was the leading vote-getter on The Associated Press' preseason all-America team.Despite Okafor's popularity, Villanueva got plenty of attention for his 10-for-11 shooting."Villanueva just stepped up," Okafor said. "We needed someone to step up big and he did. He knocked down some big shots."The Owls hung with the fast-breaking Huskies through the first 10 minutes of the opening half and led 24-21 with 8:14 to go in the first half on a steal by Harris and a basket by J.R. Harrison.From that point, the Huskies outscored Rice 20-9 over the rest of the half for their 8-point halftime lead.Villanueva hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie it at 24-24, starting an 11-0 run in which he had seven points. Then, a steal by Denham Brown led to a layup by Taliek Brown for a 26-24 lead."We just tried to fight all night," Rice's Jason McKrieth said. "Villanueva showed up tonight. He hit some bit some big shots down the stretch."Harris led the Owls with 25 points and McKrieth added 16, including a 3-pointer with 18 seconds to play that cut UConn's lead to 88-81. The Huskies led 82-70 with 1:34 to play.Rashid Smith and Yamar Diene each scored 16 points for Rice. Smith's 12 assists were a school record."Their defense in the paint left me open," Villanueva said. "I just took advantage of the opportunities. I was just trying to read what the defense gave me. I felt someone had to step up. I felt I had to step up."Once I hit the first few shots, I felt conformable and I just kept shooting."UConn coach Jim Calhoun wanted better defense from the Huskies."To get 50 points on us in a half, you have to give them credit," he said. "We just couldn't consistently play defense and stop their penetration. Rice hung in there. There were plenty of times when things looked bad for them, when they would fall behind eight or 11 points but they fought back every time."We helped them some though."
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