Connecticut's big man provides big solutionsPosted: Thursday March 20, 2003 7:51 PM
Updated: Thursday March 20, 2003 8:51 PM
By Brian Hamilton, Special to SI.com
SPOKANE, Wash. -- He called it "fair."
That is the word Jim Calhoun used to describe Emeka Okaforís defensive effort Thursday against BYU. That is the word the Connecticut head coach, who sets the land-speed record for words per minute, employed when reflecting on a game of seven blocked shots and endless altered ones, including one that quite literally sailed over the backboard.
But this is the thing: Itís probably the right word. Okaforís effort in Connecticutís 58-53 win? Itís par. Itís standard operating procedure. He has actually done better (or worse, depending if youíre driving to the rim). This is what Okafor does. Heís like Harvey Keitelís character of Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction.
He solves problems.
"In a lot of games he plays," Calhoun said, "he might be the single most important player, for both teams."
This was never more true than Thursday, and the most poignant moment of truth came with about a minute and a half left to play. The Huskies had watched a 14-point lead disintegrate, and here were the Cougars, down four with the ball.
BYU center Rafael Araujo, who Okafor essentially turned to mush Thursday, backed into the lane. He went up strong to the rim. And Okafor promptly and emphatically swatted the shot away.
Even more important, the rejection stayed in bounds just long enough for Huskies guard Taliek Brown to track it down and call timeout as his momentum carried him over the line. On the next possession, Ben Gordon hit a floater to extend the lead to six with a minute left. That was the clincher, and it was basically all made possible down the other end by the human rejection slip.
"Most of my blocks stay inbounds," Okafor said. "Iím not one to put it into the crowd for show. I blocked it, and Taliek made a great hustle play, grabbed it and called timeout. And we ended up scoring off of it."
This game was all Okafor, on both ends. The sophomore scored a game-high 20 points, shooting 8-of-13 from the floor while the rest of the Connecticut roster fired at a 9 for 39 clip. Itís partly why Calhoun labeled Okaforís play as "more than massive."
The other part being, of course, his defense. As usual, Okafor tacked up the "Enter At Your Own Risk" sign in the lane. BYU forward Mark Bigelow observed that you just donít see pure shot-blockers at the collegiate level that often. That lack of familiarity was pretty evident Thursday.
"He did interrupt us a little bit," BYU guard Travis Hansen said. "When you drove, youíd pull up and arch the shot over the big guy. Heís definitely a force in there."
"For the most part, he scares the other team," Gordon said. "Theyíre hesitant. If a guard penetrates, heíll probably do something uncharacteristic. Even if he doesnít block a shot, heís altering the shot."
But as Calhoun repeatedly says, itís imperative to Connecticut that Okafor is in the game to do all this. On Thursday, he picked up his first foul 20 seconds into the game. Calhoun pulled Okafor soon thereafter, sitting him for a few minutes. He also informed the officials that if they were going to call the game that close, "weíll be here until Saturdayís game."
Okafor didnít pick up another foul the rest of the way.
"Maybe for the first three or four minutes [after an early foul], Iíve got to be a little more tentative," Okafor said. "But later in the game, theyíll be less likely to call the bumps. And thatís what happened."
And then Okafor can do what he did in the last two minutes Thursday. He can solve any and all of Connecticut's problems.
Brian Hamilton covers college sports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and writes a "This Week in the Big Ten" column for SI.com.