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Huskies dominant inside and out

4/8/2004

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- The Connecticut Huskies really do have it
all: the All-America center, the flashy guards, the coach who gets
everything right, and now a national title won with ease.

Led by 24 points from Emeka Okafor and 21 from Ben Gordon, the
Huskies outclassed Georgia Tech 82-73 on Monday night to win the
championship many predicted they'd get from the very start of the
season.

They looked like champions from beginning to end, running when
they wanted, controlling the middle at other times, grabbing just
about every loose ball and making the Yellow Jackets look ordinary.

UConn became the first team since the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats to
win the title after being ranked first in the preseason. The
Huskies wound up on top of the college basketball world, thanks to
a tall, quick, deep and talented roster put together by coach Jim
Calhoun.

"Going wire-to-wire is one of the hardest things you can do,
and it wasn't just the beginning of the year for us," Calhoun
said. "This wire-to-wire went September to April, and that's as
hard as it gets."

The 32-year coaching veteran missed making the Basketball Hall
of Fame by one vote this week. After the way he built and guided
this team, it's hard to imagine why. He coached UConn to its second
championship in six seasons, and joined Mike Krzyzewski and Bob
Knight as the only active coaches with multiple titles.

On Tuesday, tiny Storrs, Conn. -- the home of the Huskies -- could
become the undisputed capital of the basketball universe. The
women's team takes on Tennessee in the title game in New Orleans,
and with a win, Connecticut would become the first school to sweep
both championships.

"It was a great season," Okafor said. "We had our ups and
downs. This moment makes it all worthwhile."

Some say the Huskies' success starts with Okafor, the Final
Four's most outstanding player. He also had 15 rebounds for his
24th double-double of the season, which was marked by persistent
injuries. Prowling the lane on both ends, using his lanky 6-foot-10
frame to block two shots and alter dozens more, he dominated on
offense and negated Tech's Aussie center, Luke Schenscher.

Early in the second half, Okafor kept his hands straight up and
denied three straight Tech attempts to get the ball toward the
basket. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt buried his head in his
hands and turned around toward the crowd. He couldn't believe there
wasn't a foul -- or maybe he just couldn't stomach what was
happening.

By that point, the lead had grown to 20, and although Tech's
furious rally cut the deficit to seven in the final seconds, the
outcome was never in doubt.

"They just went after the ball," Tech's Marvin Lewis said.
"They used their size, they boxed out well, they got to the ball.
We were fighting as hard as we could."

Of course, UConn has more -- much more -- than Okafor, and every
element was working.

Gordon, a junior who led the team in scoring, hit all three of
his 3-pointers during the first 20 minutes to help the Huskies take
a 15-point lead at halftime. His backcourt mate, Taliek Brown,
bounced back from a rough game in UConn's semifinal win over Duke
to finish with nine points, six rebounds and four assists.

Josh Boone, Rashad Anderson, Charlie Villanueva ... the list
goes on and on. No fewer than 10 UConn players made significant
contributions in this one.

Anderson celebrated at the end of the game by running around the
court with the game ball, laughing and holding his index finger in
the air as Okafor chased him. They eventually hugged -- a fond
farewell for Okafor, a junior who earned his degree in three years
and will almost surely leave for the NBA.

The two hooked up beautifully just before halftime, when Okafor
snatched a missed free throw, turned and, while still airborne,
threw to Anderson, who dribbled to the top of the key and swished a
shot at the buzzer. The Huskies pulled it off in five seconds, and
looked as if they were the only ones on the floor, instead of
playing against five Yellow Jackets.

Tech got nine points and 11 rebounds from Schenscher. Will Bynum
led the Jackets with 17 and B.J. Elder had 14, but they simply
couldn't shoot on this night. That they shot just 38 percent from
the field was understandable, given they were going against Okafor
and a lineup that included two more 6-10 guys.

But 12-for-21 from the free-throw line? That was a killer, and
it allowed the Huskies to push the lead to double digits much more
easily than they might have.

"You know, it happens like that some nights," Hewitt said.

Of course, losing always hurts, but it was hard to deem this
season a failure for Tech.

The team from the campus in downtown Atlanta was picked to
finish seventh this season in the nine-team Atlantic Coast
Conference, but instead made it to its first Final Four since 1990
and its first title game.

"We may not have one name that people can latch on to, so we're
somewhat nondescript," Hewitt said. "But this has been an
excellent basketball team the whole season."

The first inkling that this could be a big year for Tech came in
November, in the preseason NIT, when the Jackets dismantled UConn
77-61 to knock the Huskies out of the top spot in the poll.

Okafor's back was hurting then. The UConn team that showed up
for the final barely resembled the one from last fall.

"The difference between this game and the preseason NIT was
that this was the national championship game," Gordon said,
"plain and simple."