- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

PHOENIX — 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 yesterday as the Huskies thrashed Alabama 87-71 in the Phoenix regional championship game.

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 today’s Duke-Xavier game in the Final Four on 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 Alabama 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 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.”

Chuck Davis scored a career-best 24 points for Alabama and Kennedy Winston 21. But Earnest Shelton managed 10 on 3-for-11 shooting, and floor leader Antoine Pettway was 0-for-2 with 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 Alabama team 40-29 in the first 20 minutes. UConn made nine 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 eight shots, made five, 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 had 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.”

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