- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2004

SAN ANTONIO — Sometimes it is the destination, not the journey.

Connecticut arrived where it was supposed to last night, on schedule, as the best team in college basketball after beating Georgia Tech 82-73 at the Alamodome in the NCAA tournament championship.

The Huskies probably clinched the title Saturday, when they came back to beat Duke 79-78 in the semifinals. Many believed that to be the real championship game.

They weren’t wrong.

As well as Tech played during the tournament, authoring a feel-good story that began in Milwaukee, continued in St. Louis and concluded here, the Yellow Jackets looked as if they didn’t belong on the big stage, trying to win their first national title. In the teeth of a tough UConn defense, Tech fell behind by 25 points with 12 minutes remaining, only making the game appear close by hitting four 3-pointers in the final 43 seconds.

“We had a big lead at halftime and I wanted to make sure we were going to stand on the podium after the game,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.

With several former UConn stars like Rip Hamilton and Ray Allen in attendance, All-American junior center Emeka Okafor had 24 points for the Huskies (33-6) and was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four. Guard Ben Gordon added 21 for the Huskies. Reserve guard Will Bynum scored 17 points for Tech (28-10), which shot just 38 percent from the field and made 12 of 21 free throws.

Tech coach Paul Hewitt said credit should go to UConn. But added, “We missed some easy shots and free throws, and that was the difference.”

Tech guard Jarrett Jack, whose 1-for-8 shooting marred an otherwise fine tournament, said, “They pretty much outplayed us in every phase of the game.”

This makes two titles in five years for Calhoun, whose team won it all in 1999. Calhoun, 32 years a head coach at UConn and Northeastern, joins Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski, who have three apiece, as the only active coaches with multiple championships. The victory also set up the possibility of an unprecedented double for the school. The UConn women play Tennessee tonight in the national finals.

Picked as the consensus No. 1 team before the season started and a No. 2 seed for the tournament, the Huskies took a few minor detours but ended up winning nine in a row at the finish and 14 of their last 15.

“It was a great effort, a great season,” said Okafor, who added 15 rebounds and two blocks. “We had our ups and downs, but this moment makes it all worthwhile.”

Okafor’s proud parents, Pius and Celestina, were in the crowd. Asked if he ever envisioned this happening, Pius, who emigrated from Nigeria, said, “Not really. I didn’t think he was this good.”

Both teams were cold at the start but Georgia Tech, a No. 3 seed, stayed that way. The Tech offense was so inept in the first half that despite the Yellow Jackets holding UConn to one basket in the final 6:45, a jumper by Rashad Anderson at the buzzer, the Huskies extended their lead by one and led 41-26 at halftime.

It was the third largest halftime lead in championship game history.

Tech was awful from the foul line. Bynum missed two 1-and-1 opportunities and Clarence Moore another toward the end of the first half. The Yellow Jackets made just 10 of 34 first-half shots (29.4 percent) from the field and just four of 11 free throws. They came in shooting better than 71 percent from the line for the tournament.

Halftime failed to help the Yellow Jackets. They continued to miss shots and the Huskies built their lead. On one possession, fighting to get back into the game, Tech missed three straight shots within three feet of the basket.

That told the story. So did the look on Eddie Sutton’s face. The Oklahoma State coach, whose team lost to Tech on Saturday in the semifinals, was caught by the CBS cameras with a sad expression and seemed to be wondering, “How did we lose to those guys?”

He probably wasn’t the only one.

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