UConn uses all its weapons to win title

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 6, 2004

SAN ANTONIO - 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.

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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 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," Coach Jim 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.

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.

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."