Anderson spurs UConn past upstart Vermont 70-53 in opener
Updated: Friday March 19, 2004 12:33AM
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- For a moment, Vermont's Taylor Coppenrath must have thought he was playing Maine again. Then Emeka Okafor began guarding him and reality quickly set in.
Okafor helped limit Coppenrath, the nation's third-leading scorer at 24.7 points per game, to 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting, and Rashad Anderson scored 22 points to lead Connecticut to a 70-53 victory Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Coppenrath, who scored 43 points against Maine in the America East Conference championship, hit a 3-pointer and two free throws as Vermont scored the first seven points of the game and its legion of fans smelled a rare upset.
Exit Josh Boone from guarding Coppenrath and enter Okafor, the nation's leading shot blocker, and the Vermont star fizzled.
"I had to come in. He's a big-time player and I had to step up to the challenge," said Okafor, who finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, his 21st double-double of the season, tops in the nation. "I knew we were going to come back eventually if we got our offense running. There was no need to get worried."
Thanks to Anderson, who hit six straight 3-pointers to lead the Huskies back.
"We got kind of lackadaisical," Anderson said. "They got lots of 3s -- seven in the first half. We don't give up that many in a game. We just had to pick it up."
Connecticut (28-6), the Big East champion and second seed in the Phoenix Regional, will play DePaul in the second round. The seventh-seeded Blue Demons beat Dayton 76-69 in double overtime.
The Huskies improved to 12-0 in first-round games under coach Jim Calhoun, who won his 30th tournament game to tie Adolph Rupp for 12th on the career list.
Vermont (22-9) gave coach Tom Brennan and the team's loyal following a thrill, staying with Connecticut early despite the imposing odds of a 15th seed pulling off an upset. It's only been accomplished four times.
"They really came out and played loose, they played like Tommy's personality," Calhoun said. "They didn't seem to care about a lot of things except having fun, competing, and trying to make my life as miserable as possible."
The Huskies, so deep in talent, didn't have to rely on Ben Gordon to lead the way as he did in the Big East tournament when Okafor sat out two games with back problems. Anderson finished with 22 points, and Gordon and Taliek Brown each scored 14.
T.J. Sorrentine led the Cats with 19.
A large contingent of Vermont fans, most of them decked out in gold T-shirts with the school name and logo on the front, cheered loudly when the team took the floor for the pregame warmups. And it didn't take long for the atmosphere in that section of the stands to rumble with excitement once the game got under way.
David Hehn stole Connecticut's first pass and fed Coppenrath for a 3-pointer just 30 seconds into the game. Germain Njila then hit a jumper at the shot-clock buzzer and two free throws by Coppenrath made it 7-0, putting a big smile on Brennan's face.
"Our main objective was to stay outside and lure him [Okafor] away," said Coppenrath, who was 2-for-9 on 3-pointers. "We knew he was having back problems, so we tried to move him out, but it really ended up tiring me out."
UConn, with Calhoun pacing the sideline and chewing nervously on a wad of gum, finally scored when Anderson hit a 3-pointer from the right wing at 16:50, and Anderson didn't stop there. He hit five more 3-pointers in a row to propel UConn into the lead.
Brown stole the ball from Coppenrath and scored on a fast-break layup, then notched another steal on the next Vermont possession and fed Gordon for a fast-break dunk that gave the Huskies a 21-15 edge.
The Catamounts refused to give in. Sorrentine sandwiched two 3-pointers around one by Alex Jensen to tie it at 24 with 8:29 left.
Anderson hit his fifth 3 off an inbounds pass to break the tie, Okafor converted a hook in the lane for his first basket, and Anderson struck again, this time from the top of the key, to give the Huskies a 32-24 lead. Connecticut led 37-27 at halftime and slowly pulled away in the second period. A fast-break layup by Brown gave the Huskies a 47-31 lead at 15:09 and the Cats never got closer than 10 the rest of the way.