- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

SYRACUSE, N.Y. Juan Dixon and Byron Mouton noticed it.
During the Maryland Terrapins' defeat of Connecticut at the BB&T; Classic in early December, they overheard Huskies players jawing with each other, voicing their differences regarding shot selection and decisions they had made. In that game, the Terps bolted to a 21-7 lead and won 77-65.
"It seemed their chemistry was out of sync," Dixon recalled yesterday.
Any squabbles the Huskies may have had with one another might seem natural for a group of young players trying to find its identity. Among Connecticut's starters and top two scoring reserves, only shooting guard Tony Robertson is in at least his third season at the school.
The Huskies since have found some cohesiveness, and the group that fell to the Terps on Dec.3 is a distant memory. The second-seeded Huskies have won 12 in a row coming into today's East Region final at the Carrier Dome and are playing some of their best basketball of the season.
"In the beginning of the season, guys were a little antsy," freshman sixth man Ben Gordon said. "We weren't really giving that much respect to each other on the court. But now as a team we've grown a lot. … In order for us to win, we can't be against each other; we have to be for each other. Slowly, everybody's kind of been jelling into that idea."
The congealing agent in that solution has been the co-Big East player of the year, small forward Caron Butler, who spent six months in jail at 15 on gun and narcotics charges but has found stardom in Storrs.
Now a 22-year-old sophomore, Butler has taken a position of leadership among the young Huskies statistically (20 points a game) and vocally, and the team has responded. Butler has had a sensational tournament and is playing like one of the top 10 players in the nation, which coach Jim Calhoun yesterday said he is.
"I'm more confident as a leader, and I've really stepped up to the plate," Butler said. "These guys believe in me and have followed behind me."
Butler has averaged 24.7 points in the first three rounds of the NCAAs, including a 34-point, nine-rebound effort against N.C. State in the second round. He can knock down the 3-pointer but gets a majority of his points slashing to the basket and running out on the fast break, which he did several times against Southern Illinois on Friday. He also crashes the boards with abandon, which results in increased scoring opportunities.
Butler said after the first meeting that he hoped to get another shot at the Terps in March, and now he and the Huskies have their chance.
"It's good we get a chance to redeem ourselves hopefully it's for the best," Butler said. "You get what you ask for. … This is a great opportunity for us to prove how much we grew as the season went on."
The Huskies complement Butler's all-court game with tough team defense, a penchant for pushing the ball upcourt in transition and a stout inside game. Guards Gordon, Taliek Brown and Tony Robertson are excellent in the open floor, and freshman center Emeka Okafor (4.25 blocks) has progressed a great deal since the beginning of the season.
"I think the time we played them, they weren't even ranked, and now all of a sudden they're a number two seed. That means they made some adjustments," the Terps' Drew Nicholas said. "They've got all the components: They've got good guard play, a pretty darn good swingman, they have a big guy in there blocking shots and they're athletic.
But maybe the most underrated dimension of UConn's game is its defense, which has stood as the team's backbone throughout the season. Heading into the tournament, UConn ranked fourth in Division I in field goal percentage defense, allowing 37.7 percent.
Of course, it helps to have a player like Okafor, who can compensate for his teammates' defensive gambles by stuffing scoring opportunities. On Friday, the Huskies held Southern Illinois to one 3-pointer in 14 attempts and 38.3 percent shooting for the game.
Yesterday Okafor came up with a rejection a verbal one to the Terps' promises that they will take the ball right at Okafor and try to get him in foul trouble, much like they did in the first meeting.
"They said they want to bring it on, let them bring it on," he said.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide