- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

The Hampton cheerleaders were ready, but so was Connecticut freshman center Emeka Okafor.

The 6-foot-9 Okafor dominated the interior and gave the Pirates fits. Not even Hampton's high-energy, gyrating cheering squad could distract Okafor, who contributed 12 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks to lead second-seeded Connecticut to a methodical 78-67 victory over No.15 Hampton yesterday in the first round of the NCAA East Region before 17,725 at MCI Center.

The Huskies will play N.C. State tomorrow in the tournament's second round. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 next week in Syracuse, N.Y.

Okafor revels in these kind of games. In the four games UConn (25-6) has played against top 10 teams, he averaged 12 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.5 blocks. Yesterday's NCAA game offered Okafor the brightest of lights.

"He's the difference maker," Hampton coach Steve Merfeld said. "We're just not used to that presence inside. I think he had five blocks, and I don't know how many shots he altered. Some of those in the first half anyway were plays that we were on the verge of completing a layup, dunk, or a short shot around the basket, he ends up swatting it away and it creates transition for them."

Okafor, whose complete first name is Chukwuemeka, fell one blocked shot (70) shy this season of the Big East freshman record held by Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning. Twice this season, Okafor, who is from Bellaire, Texas, blocked nine shots in a game. The Pirates (26-7), from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), tasted synthetic leather all game.

"Before the game, the coaches pointed out that they were small," Okafor said of Hampton. "I know I had to take advantage of this and show up today. I had to play hard and do what I needed to do."

The scrappy Pirates didn't pack it in until the final seven minutes of the game. Hampton narrowed the deficit to 71-67 on a breakaway dunk by Pirates guard Tommy Adams with 3:07 remaining.

The Pirates came into this game hoping lightning would strike twice. Last year Hampton stunned Iowa State 58-57, but there was no repeat shocker. Okafor made sure of it.

Sophomore forward Caron Butler, the Big East Player of the Year, led UConn with 21 points. Adams, who grew up in Woodbridge, Va., led all scorers with 23 points and made five of 12 3-pointers.


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