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Okafor tweaks shoulder, plays sparingly

3/28/2004

PHOENIX (AP) -- The NCAA tournament is bringing out the best in
Connecticut.

And the Huskies at their best are breathtaking.

Ben Gordon scored 36 points -- one shy of his career high -- and
Rashad Anderson added a career-best 28 -- in the Huskies' 87-71 romp
over Alabama on Saturday in the Phoenix Regional final.

A flurry of blocked shots, a dazzling display of long shots, and
the upstart Crimson Tide had no shot against an assemblage of UConn
talent coming together when it matters most.

Anderson made six of nine 3-pointers and Gordon was 4-for-7.
Gordon, the regional MVP, was also 10-for-11 at the foul line.

"Both of us have never shot that well in any one game this
year," Gordon said. "I think the man upstairs just gave us the
talent to do that today."

Connecticut, the preseason pick for No. 1, plays the winner of
Sunday's Duke-Xavier game in the Final Four next Saturday in San
Antonio.

"It's going to take a great game to beat them," Alabama coach
Mark Gottfried said. "They've just got so many weapons."

Second-seeded UConn (31-6) used a 17-4 outburst over the final
five minutes of the first half to go up 53-29 and 'Bama never got
closer than 14 after that.

Coach Jim Calhoun called the first 20 minutes "probably as good
a basketball as we could possibly play."

Connecticut's All-America center Emeka Okafor played only 19
minutes and scored just two points, but had nine rebounds and
blocked five shots, all in the first half. A hard foul by Alabama's
Jermareo Davidson gave Okafor an elbow stinger with 9:19 left in
the first half.

Okafor left briefly, returned to finish the half and started the
second half. But he sat down for good with 16:32 to play and UConn
leading 59-36.

"Just a little tingle. Nothing too serious," Okafor said when
asked how his arm was feeling after the game.

UConn playmaker Taliek Brown scored just three points but had 10
assists.

"We've had some times where the mantle of expectations weighed
heavily upon us," Calhoun said. "As the season started to close
down and we saw our window of opportunity become more limited, we
kicked the window out and became a terrific, terrific basketball
team."

The eighth-seeded Crimson Tide (20-13) stunned top-seeded
Stanford and beat defending national champion Syracuse to reach a
regional final for the first time. But UConn's combination of size,
quickness and uncanny accuracy was too much, especially over that
five-minute onslaught.

Chuck Davis scored a career-best 24 points for Alabama, and
Kennedy Winston 21. But Earnest Shelton managed just 10 on 3-for-11
shooting and floor leader Antoine Pettway was 0-for-2 with just one
point.

UConn's Josh Boone missed four consecutive free throws as
Alabama cut the lead to 76-62 on Davis' two free throws with 4:39
to play. Gordon followed with a 10-footer, and Alabama never got
closer than 14 again.

The Huskies advanced to the Final Four for the second time. The
first run also went through Phoenix, where UConn won the West
Regional en route to the 1999 national championship.

Anderson sank two 3-pointers and Gordon one in the late
first-half run that put UConn in control for good.

"I had a chance to sit around and watch them play all season,
and I've never seen them shoot the ball like that and work the
inside-outside like they were," Davis said of the Huskies. "I
think they made their first seven 3s. They came out ready to
play."

The pair outscored the entire 'Bama team 40-29 in the first 20
minutes.

UConn made 9-of-11 3-pointers in the first half, with Anderson
going 6-for-6 for 22 points, four shy of his career best for an
entire game.

"I was really in a zone. I felt like both of us were,"
Anderson said. "Before I even came off the pick, I felt like the
shot was in."

Gordon, meanwhile, took just eight shots, made five of them, was
3-for-4 on 3s and had 18 first-half points.

Calhoun took Anderson out after his 3 with 17 seconds to go
punctuated the outburst, and the sharpshooter could only shake his
head from side to side as if he couldn't quite believe what he'd
done.

Okafor swatted away shots inside early, with three blocks in
about a 20-second span.

The junior sank a rebound bank shot with 9:19 to play to put
UConn up 28-15, and was clobbered by Davidson.

Okafor hurt his arm on the play, and his subsequent free throw
didn't reach the rim. He came out of the game, stretched on the
sidelines, flexing his hand, then returned 1:02 later.

Davis' three-point play, on a foul by Okafor, and Winston's
5-foot floater in traffic had cut the lead to 33-25 with 5:20 left
in the half.

But Gordon rebounded his own shot for a score, then was fouled
by Winston on a 3-pointer. His three free throws made it 38-25 with
4:13 left before half and UConn's big run was on.

The Huskies have won their last 10 games with Anderson in the
starting lineup. Calhoun made him a starter against St. John's on
Feb. 24.

Since then, the only game Anderson didn't start, UConn lost at
Syracuse in its regular-season finale.

When it was over, there wasn't much celebration. The players
climbed the ladder to take turns cutting down the net, but it was
all done calmly as if a gigantic load had been lifted from them.

"It would have been incredibly disappointing if we didn't get
to a Final Four with this group," Calhoun said. "This is as good
a group of kids as I've ever been around. They're incredibly
talented. I don't know if it's the best team I've ever had, but I
can tell you this much, they're incredible people to be around."