Wed, Apr 07, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Okafor leads UConn to title

NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP University of Connecticut players and fans realized what they had come to believe since the start of the season. They are No. 1


Connecticut's Emeka Okafor cuts down the net after the Huskies' 82-73 win over Georgia Tech in San Antonio, Texas, Monday.


Led by 24 points from Emeka Okafor and 21 from Ben Gordon, the University of Connecticut Huskies outclassed Georgia Tech 82-73 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 Georgia Tech 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.

Calhoun 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, Connecticut -- 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.

Some say the Huskies' success starts with the All-American center Okafor, who recorded his 24th double-double of the season and overcame injuries that bothered him all year. Prowling the lane on both ends, using his lanky 6-foot-10 frame to alter dozens of shots, 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 to his team.

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.

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