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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Connecticut Comes Full Semicircle in This Victory

Huskies make 10 of 17 from three-point arc, nine of 11 in first half, to rout Alabama, 87-71, and reach Final Four.

March 28, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — They should have gone ahead and cut down the net at halftime.

That's how good Connecticut was.

The Huskies blew away Alabama in the first 20 minutes of their 87-71 victory in the Phoenix Regional final Saturday by making nine of 11 three-point attempts and swatting away shot after Alabama shot to take an astonishing 53-29 lead.

By the time it really was time to snip some threads and celebrate Connecticut's second trip to the Final Four in six years, a school official had to point toward the ladder waiting under the net at America West Arena.

The players seemed to have forgotten.

"I can tell you, maybe it wasn't the jumping-around elation you saw the first time we went five years ago, but they were sitting there saying, 'This is unbelievable,' " said Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, whose team won the NCAA title in 1999.

Connecticut (31-6) was so good -- even with center Emeka Okafor sitting on the bench all but four minutes of the second half because of what was described as a "stinger" in his right shoulder -- it was hard Saturday to imagine any other team winning the title in San Antonio.

"We've played some great teams this year, within the league and out of our league," said Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried, whose team finished 20-13 after playing the most difficult schedule in the nation and upsetting top-ranked Stanford and defending champion Syracuse during the NCAA tournament.

"They made a believer out of me today, no question."

For the most part, the Huskies are a purposeful bunch, ferocious but dead serious about it. Okafor doesn't yell or swagger when he blocks a shot -- he had five blocks in the first half alone -- and Ben Gordon, who led Connecticut with 36 points and made four of seven three-point tries, rarely cracks a smile on the court.

The exception is Rashad Anderson, a sophomore who didn't break into the starting lineup until the 27th game of the season but has been phenomenal in the NCAA tournament.

Anderson made all six three-pointers he tried in the first half, shaking his head and blowing on his fingers as if to cool them.

He flashed seven fingers to the crowd after he sank his first long shot in the second half, but the official didn't give it to him.

"He said it was a two, but I said, 'That's seven,' " Anderson said. "He was like, No, that's two, your foot was on the line.' I was like, 'Well, give it to me.' "

Anderson didn't have another three-pointer in the second half, but he finished with 28 points and has made a school-record six three-pointers two times in four tournament games.

And, of course, it's not over.

"Without question we're happy to be a participant in the Final Four, but we want to be playing for the national championship," Anderson said.

Okafor's injury at first seemed as if it might be serious enough to affect Connecticut's chances to win the title. He was in obvious pain when he took himself out with 16:33 left in the game, but Calhoun said team doctors told him Okafor could return to the court if needed.

"What he has, it feels like when you hit your crazy bone, he kept feeling numbness in his fingers," Calhoun said. "The doctors said it could go away in a matter of minutes or a matter of hours, but definitely in a couple of days.

"Right now, the speculation by our medical staff is he should be fine by the end of the week."

For one game, anyway, Connecticut didn't need him.

Anderson was incredible, sinking his final three-pointer as he fell down and slid in the final seconds of the first half.

"I mean, the basket felt real big," he said. "Before I even came off the pick, I felt like the shot was in."

Anderson scored only six more points, but Gordon kept it up, scoring 18 in each half and making 11 of 19 shots.

"Me and Rashad were kind of unconscious on offense," Gordon said, but he emphasized a Connecticut defense that held Alabama to 41.7% shooting -- 34.3% in the first half.

"We distracted them and contested every shot," Gordon said.

Calhoun called the first half "probably as good a basketball as we can possibly play."

They are playing it at the right time.

Okafor was asked whether he envied the season-long success of some other teams, such as Saint Joseph's. He said emphatically that he didn't.

"When you win, you tend to overlook things," he said.

"Everything's great, everything's fine. But when you get your butt whipped, you just go back and find out why you lost, so we don't lose that way again.

"We lost again, but not the same way. OK, fix this, fix that. What happens? You get to the Final Four."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Points Aplenty

Connecticut's Ben Gordon and Rashad Anderson had two of the top 10 single-game point totals in this NCAA tournament in the Huskies' victory in the Phoenix Regional final Saturday:

43 GERRY McNAMARA, Syracuse

vs. Brigham Young, first round

36 BEN GORDON, Connecticut

vs. Alabama, regional final

33 JAMEER NELSON, Saint Joseph's

vs. Liberty, first round

31 LIONEL CHALMERS, Xavier

vs. Mississippi State, second round

31 MATT FREIJE, Vanderbilt

vs. North Carolina State, second round

31 DERON WILLIAMS, Illinois

vs. Cincinnati, second round

30 WAYNE SIMIEN, Kansas

vs. Ala. Birmingham, regional semifinals

29 CHRIS PAUL, Wake Forest

vs. Manhattan, second round

28 DRAKE DIENER, DePaul

vs. Dayton, first round

28 RASHAD ANDERSON, Connecticut

vs. Alabama, regional final

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