Vanderbilt tried like the Dickens to have its star forward, Matt Freije, lead it to a quick start.
Freije kept shooting but missing, and whatever chance the Commodores had of upsetting heavily favored Connecticut in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament’s Phoenix Regional bounced away with every missed shot.
And so Connecticut, too strong, too athletic, and too deep, easily dispatched the Southeastern Conference’s Commodores 73-53 on Thursday at America West Arena to advance to the regional final Saturday against Alabama.
UConn guard Ben Gordon continued his late season role as lead Husky, scoring 20 points, grabbing nine rebounds and handing out five assists.
All-American center Emeka Okafor led the Huskies’ dominance on the boards with 12 rebounds as UConn outrebounded the Commodores 44-21 and outscored them 19-2 on second-chance points.
Freije was held to eight points on 3-for-18 shooting.
"We played great defense," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said after the Huskies held Vandy to 35.1 percent shooting. "Our defense was just stellar."
UConn (30-6) worked on stopping Freije and Vandy’s back cuts. By Calhoun’s count, the Commodores (23-10) scored only twice off back cuts.
"And we were able to steal six passes that were back cuts," he said.
But the main defensive job was done on Freije, an All-SEC senior who claimed Kentucky and Mississippi State, two top-five teams, among his victims.
"We did a good job of contesting every shot," said 6-foot-10 freshman Josh Boone, who drew the primary defensive assignment. "We tried to bump him a little bit so he had to fade away."
Freije took six shots on Vandy’s first 10 possessions. On two of those possessions he was fouled or whistled for a charge. So he was the man with the ball eight of the 10 times Vandy had the ball at the game’s outset. He made only one basket.
Eight minutes into the game, he was pulled and Vanderbilt had made only 3-of-12 shots. Freije finished the first half 1-of-9.
Meanwhile, the Huskies were draining jump shots with freshman forward Rashad Anderson hitting a pair of 3-pointers to help the Huskies storm to a 23-8 lead midway through the first half.
Anderson and Gordon combined for 23 points to lead UConn to a 45-27 lead at intermission.
Freije had the ball the first two possessions in the second half. He missed a shot in close against Boone, and Boone slapped the ball away for a turnover on the second possession.
"He ran into a team that had a lot of big guys," said Calhoun, who also had Okafor and 6-11 freshman Charlie Villanueva defend Freije.
With Freije on the sideline, the Commodores made a run, cutting a 47-27 deficit to 52-45 with 12:08 to play.
UConn lost its concentration, symbolized by Okafor dropping a pair of easy passes among seven turnovers the Huskies made.
But after a timeout, Anderson knocked down a 3-pointer and order was restored.
"It wasn’t a set play," said Anderson, who finished with 15 points. "I just got open. I knew if I had an open look I’d bury it."
UConn turned up the defense again and limited Vandy to two points over the next 5 1 /2 minutes.
The coup de grace was when Boone blocked a Freije shot with five minutes left and Gordon converted with a breakaway dunk for a 67-49 lead with 4:57 remaining.
"We were really good," Calhoun said. "We did a good job of recognizing Vanderbilt’s offense."
Guards Corey Smith and Mario Moore led Vanderbilt with 12 points apiece.
"We just got off to a poor start," Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said. "We’re disappointed with our performance."
UCONN 73, VANDERBILT 53
AT A GLANCE
Stat of the day: Vanderbilt leading scorer Matt Freije (18.7 points per game) made 3-of-18 in field goal attempts and scored eight points.
Unsung hero: Connecticut freshman forward Josh Boone played terrific defense on Freije and padded his stat line with eight points, four rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot.
Blocked out: Connecticut center Emeka Okafor failed to block a shot for the first time in a game this season.
BY THE NUMBERS
7 Number of Phoenix Suns officials at the game to scout Okafor.
23 Rebounding advantage for Huskies, who had 44 rebounds to Vanderbilt’s 21.
17 Difference in secondchance points between the teams. Connecticut had 19, Vanderbilt two.
3 Consecutive victories for Connecticut in NCAA tournaments at America West Arena.
"We were really good. To some degree it wouldn’t have mattered who we played tonight." — Jim Calhoun , Connecticut coach
"Connecticut is a heck of a team. It is going to be hard for anyone to beat them." — Kevin Stallings , Vanderbilt coach