Saturday, March 23, 2002

Huskies stop Salukis' run

Connecticut 71, Southern Illinois 59

AP Sports Writer

        SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun won't talk about upsets, about mid-major conferences springing surprises on the big guys in the NCAA tournament

        “There are mild surprises, yes, but I don't think there are upsets,” he said. “We don't use the word 'upset.' We talk about being the best we can be and taking advantage of our opportunities.”

        So when the second-seeded Huskies had an opportunity against No. 11-seeded Southern Illinois in the East Regional on Friday night, Calhoun made sure they didn't miss out on it.

        UConn simply would not yield to the Salukis, who had knocked off No. 6 Texas Tech and No. 3 Georgia in the first two rounds. Instead, the Huskies ended Southern Illinois' magical march, winning the regional semifinal 71-59.

        It was a simple matter, Calhoun said.

        “We don't have better players,” he explained. “We just have more of them.”

        Caron Butler scored 19 points, and Emeka Okafor provided big plays at both ends. Then there was Ben Gordon with 12 points and five assists, Tony Robertson with 10 points and some all-around court savvy. It was just too much for the Salukis to overcome.

        Led by Rolan Roberts, who scored 24 points, Southern Illinois thought they might sneak up on UConn much the way Kent State did on Big East team Pittsburgh in the South regional the night before.

        “They were a little better than we were,” SIU coach Bruce Weber said. “Before the game, I said we had to play well and shoot well. We didn't shoot well.”

        Calhoun figured that if UConn could take away 3-pointers, Southern Illinois might struggle. And he was right. The Huskies concentrated on perimeter defense and held the Salukis to 1-for-14 from beyond the 3-point arc.

        “We decided they would not beat us with great passing and 3-point baskets,” he said.

        And they did not.

        UConn (27-6) displayed the grit that won the Big East tournament, keeping its poise and holding on.

        “We couldn't sleep on this team,” Butler said. “Being a lower seed, they were a dangerous team to look out for.”

        UConn moved into Sunday's East Regional championship game against top-seeded Maryland, which defeated Kentucky 78-68 Friday night. The winner advances to the Final Four.

        UConn is back in the final eight for the first time since 1999, when it won its only NCAA championship. The Huskies didn't even make the tournament last year, and they were knocked out in the second round by Tennessee in 2000.

        Both the 6-foot-9 Okafor and Robertson were vital for Connecticut. Robertson's ballhandling kept UConn in control, and Okafor's size eventually broke SIU's spirit.

        At one juncture, Okafor, who set a school record with 136 blocks, batted away a shot by Jermaine Dearman. Then he followed up by converting two opportunities under the basket with resounding dunks.

        After a shaky start, he also held Roberts scoreless for the last 17 minutes.

        “I fed off his determination,” Okafor said. “I said to myself, 'He's not going to score anymore”'

        Soon, UConn's lead was back to double digits.

        Southern Illinois (28-8) gave it a good try, cutting UConn's lead to 61-55, but the Huskies' depth wore the Salukis down.

        Dearman finished with 17 points, but Kent Williams, SIU's leading scorer, was held to seven.

        Roberts carried the Salukis in the early going, scoring their first four baskets and seven of their first nine. But he missed his easiest chance on an alley-oop pass when he mistimed his leap to the basket.

        Except for Roberts, who finished the first half with 16 points, Southern Illinois was erratic from the field. There were three air balls, two on the same sequence and a flurry of missed opportunities.

        Weber had said his team could not afford that against UConn, and the Huskies took advantage of the errors.

        Connecticut built its 40-28 halftime lead from the 3-point line. They hit 5-of-9, while Southern Illinois was 0-for-6 in the half.

        Except for Roberts' 8-for-10, the Salukis made just five of 21 field-goal attempts in the first 20 minutes. They also missed five of seven free throws, mistakes they could not afford against the Huskies.

        The final mistake was made by Weber, when he drew a technical foul with 1:32 remaining and SIU running out of chances.


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