Around the Big East

One of the local newspapers referred to him as “Ben Garden”Sunday morning. He was quoted as calling himself, “Madison SquareGordon.” Not only was it catchy, but well deserved.

Connecticut (27-6) defeated Pittsburgh, 61-58 in the 2004 BigEast Championship game on Saturday night in front of 19,528 atMadison Square Garden, thanks to the efforts of junior guard andNew York native Ben Gordon, who set a tournament record with 81points, two more than the previous record set back in 1996 byGeorgetown great Allen Iverson.

“They’ve been calling me that since my freshman year,” Gordonsaid of the fitting nickname, as reported in the New York Post.

For most of the four days, anyone and everyone could only talkabout the Huskies’ big man and Big East Player of the Year EmekaOkafor, who sat out the first two UConn wins due to a fracture inhis back.

Okafor, the consensus pick for National Player of the Yearhonors, returned Saturday night and recorded his 20th double-doubleof the season (11 points and 13 rebounds) but fouled out in thegame’s final minutes.

Enter big “Ben Garden.” Playing the role of Superman, Gordonstepped up, just as he did against Notre Dame on Thursday night andVillanova on Friday night and carried the Okafor-less Huskies tothe title. Trailing 54-52, Gordon, who recalled afterwards that hesaid to himself, “It’s time for me to take over the game,” knockeddown a three-pointer with 2:52 left to give UConn a one-pointadvantage.

After the feisty Panthers, who most likely would have garnered aNo. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament with a win, regained thelead at 58-57, Gordon cemented his name in the record books. Hisdriving lay-up with just 30 seconds remaining, put UConn up byone.

Freshman forward Josh Boone rejected Pitt’s Carl Krauser andGordon corralled the ball with four seconds left, then spread theicing on the cake with two free throws that lifted Connecticut toits sixth Big East tournament Championship.

“The sixth is just as special as the first,” said Connecticuthead coach Jim Calhoun minutes after his Huskies won their 22nd BigEast tournament game in its last 27 tries. “Our kids persevered. Welose Emeka with a couple of minutes to go and yet our kids hung inthere. We believed the whole way.”

After recording a double-double (16 points and 13 rebounds), hisfourth of the season in Thursday night’s win over Notre Dame,All-Big East Rookie selection Charlie Villanueva did not play dueto a sprained ankle that he suffered Friday.

Four players in double-figures led the Panthers. Big East Rookieof the Year Chris Taft and Mark McCarroll each tallied 11 as themost improved player in the conference, Krauser, as well as JeromeBrown chipped in with 10 points.

After a first-round bye, UConn held off Notre Dame, 66-58 andthen toppled Villanova, 84-67 in the semifinals before meeting Pitt(29-4) for the second consecutive year. It was also the third timethis season the two programs met, after splitting the first twomatches.

Gordon recorded back-to-back 29-point performances in the secondand third rounds of the tournament and entered Saturday night’scontest needing 21 to break the record. He scored 23.

“It puts him in that category of the great players we’ve hadhere before,” Calhoun said.

The Big East, in its 25th year of existence sends six teams tothis year’s NCAA tournament, which kicks off this Thursday andconcludes in San Antonio on Monday, April 5.

Along with Uconn, a No. 2 seed and Pitt, a No. 3 seed, there isProvidence (5 seed) Syracuse (5 seed) Boston College (6 seed), andSeton Hall (8 seed).

Big East Sends Six
Connecticut      61
Pittsburgh         58