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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Sledding's Easy for the Huskies

Connecticut dominates Vanderbilt, 73-53, with defense, fastbreak runs and accurate shooting to move on to the Elite Eight. 'We were really good,' says Coach Jim Calhoun.

March 26, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — There were small things to quibble with as Connecticut moved on to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight on Thursday.

There was the early foul trouble for Emeka Okafor, and there were the 18 turnovers by the Huskies.

But the overall impression could hardly have been more imposing than the one Connecticut made in a 73-53 victory over Vanderbilt at America West Arena.

Winning a Sweet 16 game is not supposed to be this easy.

Connecticut (30-6) was No. 1 when the season began before falling by the wayside. Now the second-seeded Huskies are trying to be No. 1 when it ends. They might have what it takes.

UConn has size. It has shooters. It has depth inside. And it has defense.

Consider the plight of Vanderbilt star Matt Freije, who had scored 31 points in a second-round upset of North Carolina State but finished with eight against Connecticut in his final college game.

He made three of 18 shots and missed all six he took from three-point range.

"I knew he was getting frustrated," said Josh Boone, the 6-foot-10 Connecticut freshman who did much of the defensive work on Freije. "He was trying really hard to get good shots, but our main goal was to make him take bad shots and get frustrated."

Connecticut's defense held sixth-seeded Vanderbilt (23-10) without a basket for almost seven minutes in the first half, using a 17-1 run keyed by Rashad Anderson's two three-pointers to take a 17-point lead a little more than midway through the half.

It seemed as if there might be a glimmer of an opening when Okafor went to the bench with 7:02 left after picking up his second foul.

But the lead, which was 18 when he left, grew to as many as 22 and was still 18 at halftime.

"When we play great defense and go on spurts where the other team doesn't score for four or five minutes at a time, then make runs with our fast break, that has to be discouraging to any team," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said.

"We were really good."

Okafor's foul trouble never became much of an issue. He finished with three fouls, 12 points and 11 rebounds, though the foul situation and score probably affected his defensive approach: He didn't block a shot, ending a 51-game streak with a block.

Connecticut's turnovers, however, threatened to give Vanderbilt an opening.

The Huskies turned the ball over eight times in the first seven minutes of the second half, and Vanderbilt went on a run of its own spurred by three-pointers from Corey Smith, Mario Moore and Dawid Przybyszewski and cut the lead to seven.

Another three by Anderson and a 10-2 Connecticut run took care of the threat, but the Huskies got the message.

"I think at this time of the season, you can't afford to throw the ball away as much as we did," said Anderson, who had 15 points and six turnovers.

Shooting guard Ben Gordon, who led Connecticut with 20 points and had nine rebounds, five assists and only two turnovers, was more blunt.

"We have to make sure this is our last game turning the ball over like that," he said.

Turnovers and free-throw shooting are the little bugaboos that could get in Connecticut's way, although the Huskies, normally 61.4% free-throw shooters, made 13 of 15 against Vanderbilt.

What would be truly daunting would be the idea of most of these players returning next season. Taliek Brown is the only senior among the top 10 players.

But Okafor plans to leave for the NBA. (Not only is he a virtual lock to be a lottery pick, he is an Academic All-American who will graduate in May with a degree in finance.) Ben Gordon, a junior, might turn pro as well.

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