Huskies have no equal - East Valley Tribune: News

Huskies have no equal

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Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2004 6:27 am | Updated: 5:51 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Emeka Okafor grabbed a camcorder and filmed his University of Connecticut teammates cutting down the nets at America West Arena Saturday.

Okafor better make sure his battery is charged. He’s about to film the sequel at the Final Four.

UConn destroyed Alabama, 87-71, in the Phoenix Regional final with an epic performance that had to send shivers through the remaining teams in the NCAA tournament.

This was a statement game, and the Huskies screamed their intentions.

Okafor blocked six shots in the first half, including three in a span of 21 seconds.

Shooting guard Ben Gordon and small forward Rashad Anderson outscored Alabama, 40-29, over the first 20 minutes.

The game was tied, 4-4, one minute and over the next. Connecticut was Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont, Alabama lagging 31 lengths behind.

"We’ve never played better," said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun.

Connecticut looks like the most dominant college basketball team since the 1990 UNLV squad featuring Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, and the 1991 and 1992 national championship Duke clubs with Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley.

The Huskies have five potential first-round NBA draft picks in Okafor, Gordon, Anderson and young big men Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva.

Weaknesses? Other than that sorry-looking mascot, the Huskies don’t have any. Okafor anchors an impregnable defense, and he’s just the biggest and baddest in a land of giants.

Boone, Villanueva and Hilton Armstrong all go at least 6-foot-10 and can turn talented playmakers into awkward-looking shooters. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. ASU coach Rob Evans would give his right arm for any one of the three.

"It gets you a little tired going up against guys like that when they are always fresh coming off the bench," said Alabama center Chuck Davis. "Their energy level is always going to be a little higher than yours."

UConn’s defense is complemented by big-time scorers in Gordon and Anderson. Point guard Taliek Brown is Connecticut’s most ordinary starter, and all he’s done is win more than 100 games in his career.

"We’ve played some great teams, but they made believers out of me today," said Crimson Tide coach Mike Gottfried.

Jaws dropped as Connecticut torched Alabama for 53 points in the first half, and it was a reminder of the sorry state of Pac-10 basketball. Even if No. 1 seed Stanford had reached the regional final, it would have been swatted away like a pesky fly.

The Huskies have been so dominant in the tournament — winning four games by an average of 17.5 points — that it’s hard to imagine them not cutting down the nets in San Antonio, site of the Final Four.

Championships don’t always follow the flow chart — Kentucky beat Florida State by 25 in the Southeast Regional Final in 1993, then lost to Michigan in the national semifinals — but UConn looks unbeatable.

The only asterisk is Okafor’s health.

He suffered a nerve injury to his right shoulder in the first half when he was hit while making a layup, and he took himself out of the game with 16 minutes and 33 seconds remaining after shooting an airball on a free throw attempt.

"I didn’t know how bad it was until I shot the free throw," said Okafor, whose shoulder was wrapped in ice after the game. "I couldn’t feel the ball. My arm was numb. I shot it, and it went flying in some different direction and I’m like, ‘Dang, that’s not good.’ "

Calhoun said the initial diagnosis by team doctors is that Okafor will be fine by the middle of the week. Okafor said he could have gone back in against Alabama if needed.

Okafor, though, was still feeling numbness in his middle finger after the game.

Nerve injuries don’t heal overnight. Former Suns guard Stephon Marbury suffered nerve damage in his right shoulder during last year’s playoff series against San Antonio, and it was months before he was fully recovered.

Okafor also is playing with a stress fracture in his back, and while he insists he’s OK — "you guys keep talking about my back. It’s not a factor," he said — he’s clearly hurting. He winced several times in Saturday’s game and stood on the sideline when he wasn’t playing so his back wouldn’t stiffen up.

"I have concerns only because Emeka is a deep thinker and he wants everything perfect like everything else in his life," Calhoun said.

If Okafor’s injuries chop him down a few sizes, Connecticut is vulnerable. He’s a unique force in college basketball, a player who can control a game without scoring a point.

But if Okafor stands tall, the Huskies will win their second national championship in five years.

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