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UConn covers, 'over' cashes

NCAA Championship, 1st Ld-Writethru

SAN ANTONIO (AP) _ Dominating in the middle, relentless from outside and brilliant on the bench, Connecticut was a team built for a title.

Led by All-America center Emeka Okafor and stellar guard Ben Gordon, the Huskies and coach Jim Calhoun cashed in on the promise they showed all season, outclassing Georgia Tech 82-73 in the national championship game Monday night.

Okafor finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds, and Gordon scored 21 points and controlled the floor throughout. The Huskies took a big lead early, and despite a late, futile comeback attempt by the Yellow Jackets, they turned the second half into their own coronation.

``We just kind of immortalized ourselves,'' Gordon said. ``We accomplished something great.''

The Huskies proved worthy of their No. 1 preseason ranking, becoming the first team since the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats to open and close the season on top. There were six losses in between, including one to Georgia Tech in November.

At one point, they lost four of nine and looked like one of the country's biggest disappointments. Nobody's saying that anymore.

``Going wire-to-wire is one of the hardest things you can do, and it wasn't just the beginning of the year for us,'' Calhoun said. ``This wire-to-wire went September to April, and that's as hard as it gets.''

Connecticut left San Antonio with its trophy Tuesday morning and is expected back in Connecticut around 3 p.m. with a pep rally scheduled for later Tuesday.

This was Connecticut's second title in six seasons, and Calhoun joined Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski as the only active coaches with multiple championships.

On Monday morning, the UConn coach was officially greeted with the news he'd fallen one vote short of induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. By Monday night, it was hard to figure out why.

The game, like most of the season, was a display of well-played, well-coached basketball.

One example came early in the second half, when Okafor kept his hands straight up and denied three straight Tech attempts to get the ball close to the basket. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt simply buried his head in his hands and turned toward the crowd. He couldn't believe there wasn't a foul _ or maybe he just couldn't stomach what was happening.

Another telling sequence was at the end of the first half, when Okafor snatched a missed free throw, turned and threw to Rashad Anderson, who dribbled to the top of the key and swished a shot at the buzzer for a 15-point lead. The Huskies pulled it off in five seconds, and looked as if they were the only ones on the floor, instead of playing against five Yellow Jackets.

``Credit should go to UConn,'' Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. ``I think, at least for me, we should stay away from overanalyzing why this happened, why that happened.''

Suffice to say, the Yellow Jackets were overmatched.

Their big redheaded Aussie center, Luke Schenscher, was neutralized by Okafor, winding up with a quiet nine points and 11 rebounds. Will Bynum, the hero of Georgia Tech's buzzer-beating victory over Oklahoma State in the semifinals, led the team with 17 points and B.J. Elder had 14, but none of their points came easy.

Tech didn't help itself with 12-for-21 shooting from the free-throw line. That might have kept things close a little longer, but there was a sense of inevitability about this outcome.

``Maybe after a few of those shots didn't fall, maybe we tried to press a little bit,'' Hewitt said. ``But that's natural. That's human nature. If things aren't working your way, you're going to try harder.''

Despite the loss, the season can hardly be viewed as a disappointment for the Yellow Jackets. They were picked to finish seventh in the nine-team Atlantic Coast Conference and instead wound up making their first Final Four since 1990 and their first title game ever.

Tech also wound up with a win over UConn _ back in November, in the preseason NIT, a loss that dropped the Huskies out of the top spot in the poll and began some of the second-guessing.

Okafor was hurting back then. So much, in fact, he spent parts of the game flat on his back on the sideline.

That wasn't the case this time. Okafor was dominant, blocking two shots and altering dozens more in the paint. He was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, a deserving award in his final game before graduating and heading for the NBA.

It will be a major loss for the Huskies, but nobody will ever say Okafor & Co. didn't live up to their promise.

``When we're healthy, we're the best team in America,'' Calhoun said. ``Tonight, on April 5th, the year 2004, they proved they're the best team in America.''

Copyright 2018 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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· UConn covers, 'over' cashes
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