9:00 PM ET, December 1, 2002
Memorial Gymnasium (Vandy), Nashville, Tennessee
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Kevin Stallings recruited Emeka Okafor for Vanderbilt and knew he lost out on a good player when the 6-foot-9 center chose Connecticut.Okafor showed him Sunday night exactly what he's missing. Okafor scored a career-high 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as No. 12 Connecticut held off Vanderbilt 76-70 on Sunday night. He also blocked three shots in 37 minutes, and Stallings credited Okafor with being the difference. ''I didn't expect that or see that coming,'' Stallings said. The Huskies (3-0) trailed only once as Okafor helped them control their first road game against a Vanderbilt squad that started three sophomores and got even younger when subbing in three freshmen. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said the Huskies wanted to get the ball inside to Okafor, and the sophomore responded by hitting 11 of 15 from the floor, including a 14-foot jumper. ''He was really terrific tonight,'' Calhoun said. ''He's changed his game. He likes the jumpers, and I like the power moves he's got.'' Okafor said he was more aggressive on offense and credited his jumpers with helping boost his confidence to drive inside. ''I just have to be patient on offense. We showed tonight we can stay with it. We have what it takes. We relaxed when we had the lead, but we were able to stick with it.'' The defeat snapped a 16-game non-conference winning streak at home for Vanderbilt (3-1), which had been an impressive 54-2 against non-Southeastern Conference opponents. It wasn't easy for Connecticut, which has won nine consecutive road openers against teams outside the Big East. The Huskies' biggest lead was 11, but the Commodores led once and tied it three other times. Vandy, which had been averaging 8.8 3-pointers through the first three games, went 2-for-15 from 3-point range. ''Their defense was really good,'' Stallings said. ''Okafor affected things around the basket a great deal. We never found a rhythm on offense.'' The Commodores took their only lead at 54-53 midway through the second when freshman Mario Moore stole an inbounds pass and scored on a layup to cap a 17-5 run. They couldn't get closer than 59-58 with 6:23 remaining before Taliek Brown stole the ball and scored on a layup to start an 11-4 spurt capped by Ben Gordon's bucket at 1:15 for a 72-62 edge. Taliek Brown finished with 15 points for Connecticut, Tony Robertson had 12 off the bench, and Denham Brown had 13, all in the first half. Okafor went scoreless for nearly 14 minutes in the second half, and that's when the Commodores made their move. Taliek Brown's bucket with 15:45 remaining gave the Huskies their biggest lead at 48-37. Matt Freije sparked Vanderbilt's run with nine points, including Vandy's first 3-pointer after missing its first five attempts. That stretched the Commodores' streak to 508 consecutive games with at least one 3, something only Nevada-Las Vegas and Princeton have done. Freije finished with 18 points for Vandy, Corey Smith 14 and Brian Thornton 13. Connecticut led 38-31 at halftime thanks to Okafor and freshman Denham Brown, who each had 13 points in the first half. But the Huskies, who beat Vandy 84-71 last year in Storrs, didn't have as easy a time as they did a year ago.
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