April 4, 2004
GAME: No. 3 Georgia Tech (28-9) vs.
No. 2 Connecticut (32-6).
ROUND: National championship game.
TIME: Monday, 9 p.m. EDT.
SITE: Alamodome, San Antonio.
Connecticut showed what it can do Saturday with an effective Emeka Okafor.
Georgia Tech has already shown what can be done to the Huskies when Okafor is ineffective.
The play of Okafor could be the biggest key in Monday’s national championship game, when the Huskies try to win their second title in five years and prevent the Yellow Jackets from winning their first.
Georgia Tech handed Connecticut what was easily its worst loss of the season with a 77-61 victory on Nov. 26 in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT. That was the first loss for UConn, which was No. 1 in the nation at the time.
Okafor’s back injury, which became an on-again, off-again problem for the remainder of the season, flared up before that game, and the All-American center was held to just nine points on 2-of-10 shooting.
The struggles of Okafor seemed to affect the whole UConn team, as the Huskies shot just 37.9 percent from the field and were an embarrassing 10-for-30 from the foul line.
“It seems like a lifetime ago,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “I know we got hit pretty good. I know they ran us off the floor.
“I know we didn’t have Emeka Okafor. He was like 2-for-9, couldn’t play the rest of the game. He was hurt. That’s the first time we had problems with his back spasms. Rashad (Anderson) wasn’t playing anywhere near as much. Both teams have changed dramatically I think in a lot of ways. I don’t know if the November matchup was indicative. I hope it wasn’t.”
UConn is a different team – arguably the nation’s most talented one – when Okafor is at his best. Even though that was for only one half Saturday, it was enough to move the Huskies within one win of adding another title to the one they won in 1999.
After going scoreless while sitting most of the first half because of foul trouble, Okafor scored all of his 18 points in the final 20 minutes as the Huskies rallied to beat Duke 79-78.
Okafor keyed the Huskies’ comeback from eight points down with 3:28 to play. He scored five points in the final 1:18, including a follow of his own miss for the go-ahead basket with 25 seconds to play.
It was the first close game of the tournament for UConn. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, has played nothing but close games.
The Yellow Jackets got a layup from Will Bynum with 1.5 seconds left to beat Oklahoma State 67-65 in Saturday’s first semifinal. That gave Georgia Tech five wins by a total of 23 points and a berth in the championship game for the first time.
“I’m enjoying the ride,” coach Paul Hewitt said. “I mean, I wish we could pull away and win the games because it’s been the same thing.
“Just when we’re about to put our opponent away, they come right back at you,” he said. “Maybe we tighten up a little bit.”
The backcourt battle was dominated by the Yellow Jackets in the first meeting – and that was even before they had Bynum. The Yellow Jackets got a combined 64 points from B.J. Elder, Isma’il Muhammad, Jack and Lewis, while limiting UConn star Ben Gordon to nine shots and 13 points and Anderson to eight points on 4-of-13 shooting.
“Perimeter play is what keeps them going. They run, they like to get out and break,” UConn guard Taliek Brown said. “They sub three perimeter guards at one time. People come off the bench (are) even good. We have to be ready. I think that’s going to be the real focus on us stopping them.”
Even though the Yellow Jackets play excellent defense on the perimeter, it is doubtful the guard matchup will be so one-sided again. Gordon continued his superb postseason with 18 points Saturday and is now the leading scorer in the NCAA tournament with 106 points (21.2 per game), while Anderson is tied for third with 86 points (17.2).
Georgia Tech won’t need as much production from its guards if Schenscher has a good game against Okafor. The 7-foot-1 junior from Australia shot 9-of-13 Saturday and is one of six Yellow Jackets averaging more than nine points.
“It’s going to be a great matchup. He’s going to have to play one of his better games,” Hewitt said, referring to Schenscher. “If we can keep him out of foul trouble, it’s going to be a great, great matchup.”
Though the Yellow Jackets may not have as many weapons as the Huskies, they seldom need them when their defense is on. Georgia Tech is 23-0 when holding its opponents below 70 points and 21-1 when holding them to under 40 percent shooting.
The teams had never met before this season.
Georgia Tech – F B.J. Elder (15.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg), F Anthony McHenry (3.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg), C Luke Schenscher (9.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg), G Jarrett Jack (12.6 ppg, 5.7 apg), G Marvin Lewis (11.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg).
Connecticut – F Josh Boone (5.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg), F Anderson (11.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg), C Okafor (17.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg), G Brown (6.2 ppg, 6.6 apg), G Gordon (18.5 ppg, 4.6 apg).
HOW THEY GOT HERE:
Georgia Tech – At-large berth; beat No. 14 Northern Iowa 65-60, first round; beat No. 6 Boston College 57-54, second round; beat No. 10 Nevada 72-67, St. Louis Regional semifinals; beat No. 4 Kansas 79-71, OT, regional final; beat No. 2 Oklahoma State 67-65, national semifinal.
Connecticut – Automatic bid, Big East champion; beat No. 15 Vermont 70-53, first round; beat No. 7 DePaul 72-55, second round; beat No. 6 Vanderbilt 73-53, Phoenix Regional semifinals; beat No. 8 Alabama 87-71, regional final; beat No. 1 Duke 79-78, national semifinals.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORDS:
Georgia Tech – 21-12, 13 years.
Connecticut – 35-23, 25 years.