Dominating in the middle, relentless from outside and brilliant on the bench, Connecticut was a team built for a college basketball title.
Led by All-America center Emeka Okafor and stellar guard Ben Gordon, the Huskies and coach Jim Calhoun cashed in on the promise they showed all season, outclassing Georgia Tech 82-73 in the national championship game Monday night.
Okafor finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds, and Gordon scored 21 points and controlled the floor throughout. The Huskies took a big lead early, and despite a late, futile comeback attempt by the Yellow Jackets, they turned the second half into their own coronation.
"We just kind of immortalized ourselves," Gordon said. "We accomplished something great."
Connecticut's women's team will try Tuesday night to immortalize the school in another way: If they beat the Tennessee Lady Vols, it would be the first time both the men and women brought an NCAA Basketball title to the same campus.
On said campus, some of the celebrations got out of hand as fans poured onto the streets after the game and started fires and overturned cars. Police say they arrested more than a dozen people. The most serious incidents occurred at the Celeron Square apartment complex north of campus, where two cars were overturned and a dozen fires were started outside.
No serious injuries are reported.
The men proved worthy of their No. 1 preseason ranking, becoming the first team since the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats to open and close the season on top. There were six losses in between, including one to Georgia Tech in November.
At one point, they lost four of nine and looked like one of the country's biggest disappointments. Nobody's saying that anymore.
"Going wire-to-wire is one of the hardest things you can do, and it wasn't just the beginning of the year for us," Calhoun said. "This wire-to-wire went September to April, and that's as hard as it gets."
This was Connecticut's second title in six seasons, and Calhoun joined Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski as the only active coaches with multiple championships.
On Monday morning, the UConn coach was officially greeted with the news he'd fallen one vote short of induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. By Monday night, it was hard to figure out why.
The game, like most of the season, was a display of well-played, well-coached basketball.
One example came early in the second half, when Okafor kept his hands straight up and denied three straight Tech attempts to get the ball close to the basket. Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt simply buried his head in his hands and turned toward the crowd. He couldn't believe there wasn't a foul — or maybe he just couldn't stomach what was happening.
Another telling sequence was at the end of the first half, when Okafor snatched a missed free throw, turned and threw to Rashad Anderson, who dribbled to the top of the key and swished a shot at the buzzer for a 15-point lead. The Huskies pulled it off in five seconds, and looked as if they were the only ones on the floor, instead of playing against five Yellow Jackets.
"Credit should go to UConn," Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "I think, at least for me, we should stay away from overanalyzing why this happened, why that happened."
Suffice to say, the Yellow Jackets were overmatched.
Their big redheaded Aussie center, Luke Schenscher, was neutralized by Okafor, winding up with a quiet nine points and 11 rebounds. Will Bynum, the hero of Georgia Tech's buzzer-beating victory over Oklahoma State in the semifinals, led the team with 17 points and B.J. Elder had 14, but none of their points came easy.
Tech didn't help itself with 12-for-21 shooting from the free-throw line. That might have kept things close a little longer, but there was a sense of inevitability about this outcome.
"Maybe after a few of those shots didn't fall, maybe we tried to press a little bit," Hewitt said. "But that's natural. That's human nature. If things aren't working your way, you're going to try harder."
Okafor was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, a deserving award in his final game before graduating and heading for the NBA. It will be a major loss for the Huskies, but nobody will ever say Okafor & Co. didn't live up to their promise.
"When we're healthy, we're the best team in America," Calhoun said. "Tonight, on April 5th, the year 2004, they proved they're the best team in America."