Nov 26, 2003
No. 1 no more.
Led by B.J. Elder and Isma’il Muhammad with 22 points each, Georgia Tech shrugged off Connecticut’s No. 1 ranking for a stunning 77-61 victory Wednesday night to reach the finals of the Preseason NIT.
The victory put the Yellow Jackets (4-0) in Friday night’s championship game against Texas Tech, which used a grueling defense to wear down Utah 65-54 in the first game of the doubleheader.
The win was Tech’s eighth over a No.-1 ranked team but first since 1994 as the Jackets improved to 8-31 all-time against the nation’s top-ranked team.
UConn shot just 37.9 percent on 25-for-66 from the floor and was even worse from the foul line, making just 10 of 30 attempts. They were 1-for-10 on 3-point attempts.
“We got (beat) physically and mentally,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “Georgia Tech handled us in every way. We took bad shots. We were not a tough team tonight. That’s something we’ve been known for for years. Toughness is fighting through a screen. Toughness is diving for loose balls. Toughness is making one more step to help a teammate.
“We were made to give in by Georgia Tech’s defense. They stopped everything. They outplayed us. they outhustled us. They outworked us. Tonight was an exceptionally negative night.”
Not for the Yellow Jackets.
With Emeka Okafor, the leading vote-getter on the preseason All-America team, nursing a sore back, Georgia Tech took advantage inside, driving to the basket time after time.
They played high-speed transition basketball, often beating the Huskies down the court.
“That’s how we play,” coach Paul Hewitt said. “Let’s see who’s in better shape.”
Okafor was in bad shape right from the start. He was doubtful for the game with back spasms and missed a time-out huddle early, stretched out on the floor as a UConn assistant worked on him. He often ran gingerly from one end of the court to the other and was hampered on both offense and defense.
He finished with 13 points on 2-of-10 shooting with 13 rebounds and six blocks after averaging 19 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.3 blocks in the first three games of the season.
“Emeka never felt good the whole night,” Calhoun said. “He begged to play. The doctors assured us he’s not going to do any permanent damage. His timing offensively and everything else was thrown off.”
With Connecticut’s inside game vulnerable, Georgia Tech attacked relentlessly as Muhammad and Elder took turns scoring baskets in bunches. Sophomore point guard Jarret Jack had another solid floor game with 12 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals. Clarence Moore led Tech on boards with nine rebounds
UConn (3-1) started out fast, scoring the game’s first six points including dazzling dunks by Okafor and Taliek Brown. But by the time Ben Gordon had converted an alley-oop pass from Brown for another spectacular basket, Georgia Tech had jumped into the lead.
Elder, called “college basketball’s biggest secret” by Hewitt, scored nine straight points for the Yellow Jackets, who overtook the Huskies and built a lead that stretched to 12 points at 40-28.
Georgia Tech missed a couple of opportunities to extend the lead and a 7-2 run at the end of the half narrowed UConn’s deficit to seven points at 42-35.
It was the second time in four games that UConn trailed at halftime. The Huskies were down by three to Yale in their opener but recovered to win by 10.
There was no recovery this time.
UConn managed just 26 points in the second half and never made a dent in a lead that stretched to as many as 19 points.
“I very rarely get deflated,” Calhoun said. “I get upset. I get angry. I get all those emotions. But tonight I got deflated. We were getting dunked on. We were getting beat down the floor sometimes four-on-one. Those are the effort kind of things that scared me.”
It was the second stinging loss in four years for the Huskies at Madison Square Garden. After winning the NCAA title in March 1999, UConn was beaten in its opener the following November by Iowa in the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic.