- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

PHOENIX — Ben Gordon lost his footing climbing the steps to the stage for a postgame interview and banged his knee. That’s about the only thing that went wrong for Connecticut.

UConn hit from outside, pounded the ball inside and dominated Vanderbilt most of the night. Now the Huskies are a win from becoming the Final Four team they were expected to be.

Gordon had 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists and UConn beat the cold-shooting Commodores 73-53 in the semifinals of the Phoenix regional last night.

The second-seeded Huskies (30-6) advanced to tomorrow’s regional final against Alabama, an 80-71 winner over Syracuse last night.

“A team has to beat us,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “I don’t want to lose.”

Rashad Anderson had 15 points and Emeka Okafor added 12 points and 11 boards for the Huskies, who staved off a 16-3 second-half spurt by Vandy that cut the lead to 52-45 on Corey Smith’s jumper with 12:07 to play.

Anderson then sank a 3-pointer on his first shot of the half to start an 8-0 run that put UConn up 60-45 with 8:35 left. The Commodores (23-10), outrebounded 41-17, never got closer than 13 again.

Matt Freije, the Commodores’ career scoring leader, shot 3-for-18 for eight points after scoring 31 points to help his team rally for a 75-73 second-round victory over N.C. State in Orlando, Fla.

“I try to look at body language,” Calhoun said. “I could detect that they weren’t sharp.”

Smith and Mario Moore each scored 12 for Vandy, which shot 35 percent.

Leading up to the game, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings called UConn “probably the most talented team in the tournament” and he might be right.

Sixth-seeded Vanderbilt, in the final 16 for the first time in 11 years, declared itself the underdog Wednesday and was overmatched athletically last night even if Gordon had a little slip up after the game.

“We got off to a poor start,” Stallings said. “We talked about getting off to a good start and controlling the pace of the game. Getting off to a poor start, we were a lot more subjected to the pace they wanted.

“We showed some fight and grit in the second half by making a game out of it, but when you get down big to a team as good as Connecticut you’ll have a hard time coming back.”

Taliek Brown added 12 points as four Huskies starters reached double figures, but UConn was unhappy with its 18 turnovers.

Brown, the pesky UConn point guard who’s been inconsistent this season, has scored in double digits in all three tournament games. The four-year starter scored 14 and 11 points in the first two rounds — the only time this season he’s had double digits in consecutive games.

Anderson keyed a 17-1 run in the first half, scoring seven straight including two 3-pointers, as UConn built a 25-8 lead and quickly established the up-tempo game it wanted — and Vanderbilt hoped to avoid.

When Smith ended the Commodores’ drought of nearly seven minutes without a field goal by making a 3 8:11 before halftime, Okafor dunked seconds later to make it 27-11.

Vandy knew it would have a difficult time if it didn’t play a near-perfect game, and the Nashville, Tenn., school couldn’t even make up ground when Okafor watched from the bench with two fouls for the final 7:02 of the first half.

UConn had an answer for the few runs Vandy mustered, crashing the offensive glass to get easy putbacks and demoralizing dunks.

“They got the ball out in transition,” Moore said. “They were able to knock down some shots, and at the end of the day, when you don’t rebound and when you don’t get back in transition, you’re going to lose.”

Okafor, who was recruited by Vanderbilt, showed no signs of trouble from an ailing back that has bothered him all season. He sat out two games during the Big East tournament before returning for the title game against Pittsburgh.

Stallings wanted to limit the minutes for Freije to keep him fresh, but it didn’t seem to matter that he played 33 — he looked nothing like the player he’d been only four days earlier. Against N.C. State, Freije made four 3-pointers and shot 11-for-11 at the free-throw line for the overachieving Commodores, who reached the tournament for the first time since 1997.

“We did a great job of contending every shot,” UConn forward Josh Boone said. “We made sure we always had a hand in his face. We tried to bump him a little bit so he had to fade away.”

Anderson, a feisty 6-5 sophomore averaging 10.4 points coming in, did not start until Feb.24 at St. John’s. The Huskies are 9-0 with him as a starter. Their only loss in their last 10 was the one he didn’t start — at Syracuse on March7 in the regular-season finale.

UConn beat Vanderbilt 76-70 on Dec.1, 2002, and 84-71 on Nov.19, 2001.

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