SAN ANTONIO - Emeka Okafor had the worst seat in the house for the first half of the Duke-Connecticut game Saturday.
That’s where an overzealous officiating crew put him by slapping him with two fouls just three minutes and 55 seconds into the game.
Okafor sat there, a crying towel draped over his shoulder, unable to lift a finger as Duke took a 41-34 halftime lead.
"That was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do," he said. "It’s my first time in the Final Four. I didn’t want to miss a minute, and I missed 16 minutes. It was eating me up inside."
Then he gave Duke heartburn.
Okafor scored all 18 of his points in the second half, including the game-winning free throw in the Huskies’ 79-78 victory.
Apparently, neither a stress fracture in his back nor a nerve injury in his shoulder nor bad officiating will keep Okafor from making his appointed round: Monday’s championship game against Georgia Tech.
"This was the season on the line," Okafor said. "A whole lot of hopes and dreams." And hoops and screams. Two immediate thoughts: First, we can dismiss that nonsense about UConn not being challenged in the tournament.
Duke led, 75-67, with 3:28 remaining then didn’t make another field goal until Chris Duhon’s meaningless 3-point shot at the buzzer. Character questioned — and answered.
"Our champion’s heart arose," coach Jim Calhoun said. Second, this was like watching "The Godfather," only with commercials every 30 seconds.
Fifty-four fouls were called. Fifty-three free throws were shot.
Duke center Shelden Williams fouled out in 19 minutes. His backup, Shavlik Randolph, fouled out in 14 minutes.
Center stage, and three middle-aged whistle blowers nearly stole the spotlight.
Just what America wanted to see.
"The game could have been in the 90s, but there were a lot of stoppages in play," Calhoun said. "Too much so because these were two pretty good basketball teams to watch do their thing."
The officiating was extreme from the start. The first foul on Okafor was questionable, the second atrocious.
Officials shouldn’t turn a blind eye when a superstar commits a foul, but they can and should appreciate the magnitude of a game and swallow their whistles on ticky-tack infractions, especially early in a contest.
Okafor’s absence allowed Duke to fearlessly attack the lane, and it made seven layups in the first half.
The second half, though, was Okafor’s showcase, and if NBA teams are wondering about his worth as a No. 1 pick, what else do they have to see?
Okafor stuffed a Luol Deng dunk attempt. He hit jumpers and left-handed hook shots. In a 53-second sequence late in the game, he nailed a jumper, grabbed a rebound on the defensive end and made a layup, giving Connecticut its first lead since the 11:15 mark of the first half.
"He played like he was player of the year in the second half," said Duke guard Daniel Ewing. "He stepped up for his team, made some huge free throws and made some big shots for them. You can’t ask much more from a player than to step up in that type of situation."
Monday’s championship game will be cast as David vs. Goliath, mighty Connecticut against gutty little Georgia Tech.
Those who believe in miracles will remember North Carolina State shocking Houston in 1983 and Villanova playing the perfect game to beat Georgetown in 1985.
Don’t bet on it happening again.
Connecticut was the No. 1 team to begin the season and it will be the No. 1 team to end the season.
Okafor will make sure of it.