SAN ANTONIO -- With their All-America center on the bench in foul trouble, the Connecticut Huskies were making too many turnovers and missing too many shots for anyone to consider them national champion material.
Then Emeka Okafor came back. And so did the rest of the Huskies -- all the way into the title game.
Okafor scored all 18 of his points in the second half and was his usual intimidating self on defense, turning Connecticut into a totally different team, the kind that could pull out a stunning 79-78 victory over Duke in the national semifinal Saturday night.
"I don't remember the comeback, to tell you the truth," Okafor said. "I just know we all just believed, and the next thing you know, we're up, game over, we're all hopping around. Everybody was jumping, celebrating."
Next up for the Huskies (32-6) is Georgia Tech, a 67-65 winner over Oklahoma State in the other semifinal. Win that game Monday night and UConn will have its second national title and would become the first preseason No. 1 to win the championship since Kentucky in 1996.
Those hopes are alive thanks to the return of Okafor.
To appreciate how much his return helped, consider how badly the Huskies played without him.
With Okafor on the bench for the final 16:05 of the first half, UConn wound up with as many first-half turnovers as field goals (11).
The sloppy play included poor choices and rushed shots like Josh Boone ramming a 1-footer into the bottom of the rim. Sharpshooter Ben Gordon had few good looks because Duke knew he was the first -- and second -- option.
Not having the nation's leading shot blocker clogging the middle hurt UConn's defense even more. The Blue Devils scored 30 points in the paint, many during a 15-1 run that put the Huskies behind by seven at halftime.
"We knew we were in a little bit of trouble because he changes the game," said Boone, who was forced into Okafor's role once he hit the bench. "We're just so used to him being on the floor.
"But there was never a doubt in our mind that we were going to win."
With Okafor back in the second half, the pressure was eased on everyone else.
Boone became a complementary player, free to lurk around the paint. Gordon found more space, too, and got on a little roll early in the second half.
To put Okafor's value in numerical terms, consider UConn's shooting percentage: 39.3 in the first half, 62.5 percent in the second.
Of course, it helped that Okafor was 7-of-8.
"Nobody was really nervous," guard Taliek Brown said. "We just kept our heads up and kept plugging away."
Again, it was the defense that changed the most. Okafor's return gave his teammates a 6-foot-10, 252-pound security blanket under the rim in case they lost their man.
Just ask Luol Deng how different things were with and without Okafor. Duke's star freshman cooled from 12 points in the first half to four in the second, missing out on two when Okafor rejected a dunk attempt.
And look at what happened to the Blue Devils' three big men: They all fouled out, while Okafor picked up only one more foul in his 18 second-half minutes.
Duke also took 15 fewer shots in the second half, another indication of how he disrupted things.
"He played like the player of the year in the second half," Blue Devils guard Daniel Ewing said. "He made some huge free throws and big shots. You can't ask for much more."
UConn coach Jim Calhoun would agree. After all, he's been calling Okafor the best player in the country and the best role model in college basketball all season.
"If you need any more proof," Calhoun said, "tonight was another example."
The Associated Press News Service
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