April 5, 2004
By EDDIE PELLS
AP Sports Writer
SAN ANTONIO (AP) – 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 taking the Yellow Jackets out of their rhythm.
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.
“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,” Calhoun said. “This wire-to-wire went September to April, and that’s as hard as it gets.”
“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.
“They just went after the ball,” Tech’s Marvin Lewis said. “They used their size, they boxed out well, they got to the ball. We were fighting as hard as we could.”
2004 Final Four All-Tournament Team
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.
Paul Hewitt directs his team against Connecticut in the second half.
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.
“You know, it happens like that some nights,” Hewitt said.
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.