Husky Nation can breathe a sigh of relief. They’re in.
Connecticut made it 2-for-2 in regional final visits to America West Arena by easily dispatching Alabama, 87-71, Saturday afternoon to advance to a Final Four appearance against the Duke-Xavier winner.
A lethal scoring tandem of junior guard Ben Gordon and sophomore swingman Rashad Anderson did in the Crimson Tide. Gordon scored 36 points and Anderson had a careerhigh 28.
Coupled with the shotblocking of All-American center Emeka Okafor and freshman power forward Josh Boone, the Huskies steamrolled the Tide like some of Bear Bryant’s old football teams used to do in the 1960s and ’70s.
Alabama "got hit by as good a basketball as we can play," said Jim Calhoun, the Connecticut coach.
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried concurred.
"UConn was absolutely terrific," he said. "Anderson and Gordon were absolutely terrific."
The game was over at intermission when Anderson made all of six of his 3-point attempts on the way to a 22-point half, and Gordon added 18 as UConn led 53-29.
"That was the best half of basketball anyone has played against us all year," Gottfried said.
Anderson was blowing on his fingers and saying, ‘Wow!’ in a bit of amazement at himself.
"I was in a zone," the Lakeland, Fla., native said. "Before I came off screens I felt the shot was going in."
Anderson started filling up the rim right after Okafor blocked three shots on one Alabama possession with the Tide trailing 13-10.
Anderson drained a trio of treys to help UConn expand its lead to 26-15 midway through the first half.
Okafor’s hockey-goalie act devastated the Tide.
"A guy like that, it’s hard to get good looks against him," said Alabama center Chuck Davis, who acquitted himself well with 24 points and nine rebounds. "Him being the shot blocker that he is hurt our inside game."
Said Gottfried, "Early in the game he had us rattled."
Over the final 10 minutes of the half, UConn outscored Alabama 27-14.
"I don’t think I’ve ever seen them shoot like that," said Alabama guard Earnest Shelton, who watched a number of UConn games on TV this season.
"We had a lot of shots that rimmed in and out. Tonight their shots were falling and ours were rimming in and out."
On an acrobatic layup with 9:19 left in the first half, Okafor, who is nursing a back injury, was fouled and injured his right shoulder. He lost feeling in his fingers.
Okafor finished the half, but played only 3 1 /2 minutes of the second half while the UConn medical staff attended to his shoulder.
Calhoun said he should be fine in a couple of days. He certainly wasn’t needed in the second half.
Not with Gordon taking over the game with 18 points while UConn ran out the clock.
"There aren’t any better guards in the country than Ben Gordon," said Calhoun, who on Saturday anointed Gordon as a "special" Husky to be mentioned in the same sentence as Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton.
Alabama (20-13) cut a 66-41 deficit to 76-60 and had the ball when Shelton missed a 3-pointer with five minutes remaining. The faint hope of a miracle rally clanged off the rim with the shot.
"We were overpowered," said Alabama forward Kennedy Winston.
So now UConn (31-6) can smile. On to the Final Four. The preseason forecast of greatness is officially within reach.
"What player that plays college basketball would not want to be in a Final Four?" said Gordon, the Phoenix Regional MVP. "If I was at home watching the game, I would be really envious of whoever was going to the Final Four. It’s just a great feeling and we’re going to cherish every moment of it."
CONNECTICUT 87 ALABAMA 71
AT A GLANCE Stat of the day: Connecticut stars Ben Gordon and Rashad Anderson outscored Alabama 40-29 in the first half.
Unsung hero: Taliek Brown The Connecticut point guard had 10 assists and only one turnover against a quick Alabama backcourt.
Fun in Phoenix: Connecticut has advanced to the Final Four twice — this year and in 1999. Both times they advanced with an Elite Eight win in Phoenix.
BY THE NUMBERS
5 The official number of blocked shots UConn center Emeka Okafor had in the first half, three in a span of 21 seconds.
17.5 Connecticut’s average margin of victory through four NCAA tournament games.
28 The number of points for Anderson, a career high.
53 The number of points Connecticut scored in the first half, the most by an Alabama opponent all season.
"There may have been equals, but we’ve never played better than we did in the first half." — Jim Calhoun, Connecticut coach
"We’ve played some great teams, but they made believers out of me today." — Mark Gottfried, Alabama coach