March 12, 2004
By JIM O'CONNELL
AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - Connecticut and Pittsburgh will decide the Big East tournament championship and settle an old score.
"It's a big rivalry. We really hate those guys. That's all we do is play each other," Connecticut guard Taliek Brown said after the second-seeded and ninth-ranked Huskies beat Villanova 84-67 Friday night in the semifinals.
Ben Gordon scored 29 points and Connecticut (26-6) won again without Emeka Okafor.
Gordon had the same number of points in the quarterfinal win over Notre Dame on Thursday, which Okafor, the conference player of the year, also missed because of back spasms. He will be a game-time decision Saturday.
"Ben Gordon was absolutely incredible," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We could not stop Gordon."
The loss ends Villanova's surprise run in the tournament. The Wildcats (16-16) beat Seton Hall and Providence to become the first team in the tournament's 25-year history to enter with a sub-.500 record and win two games. The .500 record means they are eligible for the NIT.
"We beat two outstanding teams and we just didn't have enough to beat another one," Wright said.
The Huskies, who lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense, held Villanova scoreless for 5:12 in the first half in taking a 26-13 lead. The Wildcats shot 28.1 percent (9-for-32) in the first half.
Connecticut scored the first five points of the second half to go up 42-24, but the Wildcats went on a 15-2 run and were within five at 44-39 with 14:14 to play on a 3-pointer by Foye.
"We beat two outstanding teams and we just didn't have enough to beat another one."
- Coach Jay Wright
The Huskies turned to their offense for a 15-2 run of their own to take control as they scored on six of seven possessions. A 3-pointer by Rashad Anderson made it 70-50 with 5:41 left.
"I don't want to say it was fatigue," Wright said. "We dug a hole twice, got out of it but couldn't do it a third time against a team that good."
Freshman Josh Boone made up for Okafor's absence up front with 11 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots. He had 16 rebounds - a Big East tournament freshman record - against Notre Dame and he was even more of a force on defense bettering Okafor's nation-leading 4.5 blocks per game average.
"Josh was tremendously dominating inside," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "He alleviated a lot of our problems."
Senior point guard Taliek Brown had 11 points and 10 assists. He became Connecticut's season and career leader in assists with 214 for the season and 683 for his career. The Huskies lead the nation in assists as well as rebound margin, blocks and field-goal percentage defense.
"It meant a lot to get it on this floor," the New York native said of Madison Square Garden. "It shows I did something in my four years."
Okafor has a small stress fracture of the fifth lumbar vertebrae and the spasms occur in the muscles around it, causing considerable plain. Connecticut's team doctor said Okafor will play when the pain allows him to.
Okafor, who participated in the team's shootaround Friday morning, said he will definitely play in the NCAA tournament that gets under way on March 18.
He also was selected the Big East's defensive player of the year and its scholar-athlete and averages 18.7 points and 11.5 rebounds.
Charlie Villanueva, who replaced Okafor in the starting lineup, injured his right ankle twice. He left for good after hurting it with 7:01 to play. The freshman had five points, five rebounds and three blocks.
"The X-rays were negative," Calhoun said. "People talk about our depth, but when Charlie went down we had seven scholarship players left."
Villanova, which entered the tournament with five straight losses, last played in the final in 1997.
Connecticut beat Villanova 75-74 in overtime in their only meeting this season when Okafor blocked a drive by Foye at the buzzer.