Originally published April 4, 2004
The clinching free throw was a swish and as it went in Emeka Okafor began to leap into the Texas night in a way that he never has before in his UConn career.
All around him there was bedlam and shock. The Huskies were dead with three minutes left. They went ahead with 27 seconds left.
Okafor and Ben Gordon each had 18 points -- Okafor's all in the second half -- as UConn defeated Duke 79-78 in an NCAA semifinal before 44,417 at the Alamodome Saturday. The Huskies (32-6) will play Georgia Tech (28-9) for the championship Monday night.
Georgia Tech defeated UConn 77-61 in the Preseason NIT, a game in which Okafor was hindered by back spasms.
Luol Deng led Duke (31-6) with 16 points.
Josh Boone added nine points and 14 rebounds for UConn.
The Huskies closed the game with a 12-3 run over the final three minutes. The three came from Duke's Chris Duhon at the buzzer and was meaningless.
UConn's rally overturned what would have been a frustrating loss.
All afternoon the sidewalks of San Antonio bubbled with anticipation. There were folks with signs pinned to their hats begging for tickets. There were two ragamuffins who had hitched from Bridgeport and had turned their bodies into billboards, searching for a hotel room.
The reason for the commotion was quite clear. This was UConn and Duke. Two houses alike in dignity.
Then the tyranny of the whistles took over. By halftime, fans had seen four minutes of Okafor and both Duke big men were on the bench with three fouls. This was Pac-10 basketball run amok and it seemed to sap some of the energy from the Alamodome. At one point, both sets of fans were chanting ``Let them play'' simultaneously.
Not until the second half did this game start to cook.
Duke led 41-34 at halftime but the Huskies quickly chipped that down to four.
This is where it started to resemble UConn and Duke, the preseason Nos. 1 and 2, on the big stage.
As Okafor heated up -- he scored his first field goal with 14:12 left but had five six minutes later -- the Huskies inched closer. They cut the deficit to one on three occassions -- Denham Brown's jump shot with 7:29 left made it 63-62 -- but the Blue Devils responded with a 7-0 run that seemed to finish the Huskies. The key hoop was a three by J.J. Redick with 6:24 left that made it 68-62.
All game he had been tracked by Taliek Brown and Rashad Anderson, but he popped open after the ball went inside and buried the shot to give Duke breathing room.
The Huskies made two critical plays in the final minute. They had erased all but one point of a 75-67 Duke lead and got the ball back after Deng's three bounced off the rim out of play with 44.5 seconds left.
UConn wisely went to Okafor, but his first shot lipped around the rim. He fought for the loose ball and grabbed it along the baseline. He spun to the lane and scored to give the Huskies the lead.
But Duke had a chance to take the lead. It went to Redick but Anderson, who hit a big three in the UConn rally, stripped the ball and recovered it on the floor. He was fouled and made both free throws with 11.4 seconds left.
Duke had a final chance to tie but Redick's three from the top missed off the front rim. Okafor grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 3.2 seconds left. He made the second shot and this started the UConn celebration.
The Huskies outscored the Blue Devils 10-4 over the first four minutes of the game. As solid as the start was, the Huskies would have traded their advantage for the luxury of having Okafor in the game. Okafor picked up two quick fouls.
The first was off the glass with 16:39 left. The second came 34 seconds later.
Okafor was incredulous, but he went to the bench and slammed a water bottle to the floor in frustration.
With Okafor on the bench, the Blue Devils found greater success inside the paint. Shavlik Randolph came off the bench and scored eight points as the Blue Devils outscored the Huskies 15-6 over the next six minutes.
The final hoop in the run came after Daniel Ewing penetrated and slipped the ball inside to Randolph for a dunk. Duke led 19-15 and Jim Calhoun called timeout.
One of the culprits during the Blue Devils' surge was the Huskies offense. UConn scored one point -- a Boone free throw -- in eight possessions as Duke overcame the initial surge.
Boone stopped the skid with a tap-in off his own miss to make it 19-18 with 9:37 left.
Calhoun burned another timeout 37 seconds later after Duke beat the Huskies down the floor for a 3-on-1 break that ended with a Deng dunk.
All through the first half Duke banged away inside and steadily muscled its way to a lead. Their was a cost. Shelden Williams committed his second foul with 7:59 left and Randolph went over the back for his third with 6:14 left.
Williams would later pick up his third.
But these were losses of attrition in a fight that Duke was winning. When Redick hit his first three of the game with 3:52 left it was 34-24 and the Huskies were on the edge.
The Huskies narrowed the gap over the final three minutes, getting a lift from Shamon Tooles and Denham Brown, and got to the locker room down seven, 41-34.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times