Okafor Leads U-Conn.
Okafor, Huskies Dominate In Rout of Yellow Jackets: Connecticut 82, Georgia Tech 73
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2004; Page D01
SAN ANTONIO, April 5 -- Jim Calhoun tossed in his bed Sunday night, the eve of the national championship game, wondering how his players would handle the moment so many had told them was predetermined. Long before it reached the Final Four, before practice had even began in October, Calhoun's Connecticut team had heard how good it should be, how it shouldn't -- couldn't? -- lose, how it would win a national championship.
The Huskies validated the talk against Georgia Tech on Monday night, and gave Calhoun a reason to sleep as soundly as he could imagine. Connecticut took the energy out of the Alamodome with an 82-73 dismantling of the Yellow Jackets that was far more dominating than the final score. Georgia Tech, resilient all season, closed the gap. But don't be fooled. The Huskies' victory was methodical, thorough, balanced, brilliant. And, six months later, it made those expectations about which Calhoun worried seem right on target.
"I said at the time I think this team could be the best team in the nation," Calhoun said. "And together, these kids understood what it's like having fun playing basketball, fun playing with each other, in the sense of giving to each other."
The Huskies won inside with center Emeka Okafor, who scored 24 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and was the best player on the floor -- if in not the nation. He made mincemeat of his anticipated matchup with Tech's Luke Schenscher, who battled foul trouble.
"He showed tonight why he should be player of the year," U-Conn. forward Josh Boone said of Okafor. "He earned it all season long -- and now people realize it."
But this season, and Monday night's game, made people realize that Connecticut was more than Okafor, the well-spoken, well-respected symbol of college basketball. Against perimeter-oriented Georgia Tech, the Huskies won outside as well. Guard Ben Gordon scored 21 points, swingman Rashad Anderson 18.
The Yellow Jackets -- led by 17 points from reserve guard Will Bynum -- earn credit for making a late run. But by that point, with four minutes left, they had nearly been run out of the gym. The Huskies led by 15 at halftime, and no team had ever overcome that large a deficit in the national championship game. The lead grew as large as 25 in the second half. The way the Yellow Jackets (28-10) shot Monday night -- 38 percent, their second-worst performance of the year, and a 4 of 11 from the line in the first half -- they didn't seem like likely candidates to overcome such a deficit.
"You never really have control over that," Tech guard B.J. Elder said. "That's something that can pop up on any given night. Tonight, unluckily for us, that happened."
Connecticut solidified its standing as one of the truly elite programs in college basketball, joining perennial powers Duke and Kentucky as the only schools to win at least two national championships since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
In 1999, when the Huskies beat Duke for their first title, they were prohibitive underdogs. But this season, from before they tipped off in October, they were the unquestioned favorite, causing Calhoun that pregame angst.
Yet the Huskies actually enjoyed what Calhoun called "the mantle of expectations."
"This season's been so much fun," Okafor said. "I think we just put it all behind us. We just wanted to play together."
By the end, the Huskies (33-6) wore that label exceptionally well. Yes, there were bumps, such as losing back-to-back games in February, when all of Connecticut scratched its head and wondered what was wrong with the Huskies. Sure, there were questions, about Okafor's back injury and point guard Taliek Brown's capabilities.
But when it mattered -- as February turned to March, and then March to April -- U-Conn. became what its fans thought it could be, a deep tough, talented, cohesive unit. The Huskies won 14 of their final 15 games, including their last nine, which gave them not only the Big East tournament championship, but the championship of the tournament that matters most.
"Over the past four weeks, we've been an amazing basketball team," Calhoun said. "When we're healthy, we're the best team in America."
U-Conn. had a 10-0 run to take control in the first half, and didn't stop. Up by 19 in the second half, Okafor sprawled on the ground for a rebound, extending to his full 6-foot-10 to tip what amounted to a meaningless rebound out to a teammate.
That kind of play defined Okafor, defined Connecticut. Only at the final buzzer did Okafor -- who admitted to dreaming about snipping down the nets -- finally raise his hands above his head in triumph, smiling.
"I don't know if it's hit me," he said. "It hasn't quite sunk in that the game's over, that we've done what we've done."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company