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April 3, 2004

Jim Calhoun

Ben Gordon

Emeka Okafor


JOHN GERDES: We're joined by Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and head coach Jim Calhoun. We'll ask Coach Calhoun to make a statement.

COACH CALHOUN: I'm not sure I have the energy to do that. But during this tournament, we've been very fortunate to play at such a level offensively, and then secondly, as good of teams we did play, none of them played the kind of defense Duke does. Duke just comes out, overplays you, takes you out of all your sets, does a wonderful job of taking you out of everything you'd like to do and makes you kind of break down and make plays on your own really. We hadn't really seen that since Pittsburgh. It's a funny thing to go through a couple-week run against some tremendous basketball teams such as DePaul and Alabama, and we just started out well and thought this is going to be another one of those games. I told the kids, one thing Duke has besides terrific talent, they've got the champion's heart. I thought they were going to lose three times against Xavier, and they wouldn't lose. The only way you're going to beat them is beat them. You're going to have to find a way. With us trailing by I believe it was 8, 67-75, the score, something like that, our champion heart arose. We made six straight stops. Played incredible defense. Played big plays down the other side from Rashad, to Ben, to Mek. I couldn't be more proud of our team. I'm particularly proud because once again it came at a time that I suppose at various times the game could have been, in my opinion, in the 90s, but there was a lot of stoppage of play at times (smiling). That's a hockey term from a guy from Boston, so I know about stoppage of play - too much so. Certainly wasn't anything of malice or intended, just too much stoppage of play, two pretty good basketball teams to watch do their thing. Regardless, we're incredibly happy, incredibly proud of our kids, we are incredibly respectful of Duke and Mike. They're just really, really good. They just -- you just can't beat them sometimes until you beat them. You almost have to take the last breath out of them. We were able to do that with some great plays and some great, great defense. On behalf of really my staff and myself, we're just so proud of our kids, I mean, really, really proud of our kids. It's one of the great wins we've had at UConn.

JOHN GERDES: Questions for Emeka Okafor or Ben Gordon.

Q. How hard was it for you to sit out the first half?

EMEKA OKAFOR: It was one of the most difficult things to have to do. My first time in the Final Four. I didn't want to miss a minute. I was going to miss 16. I mean, it was eating me, eating me up inside. You know, I just keep my head in the game, cheer my teammates on. I couldn't -- I blew off steam for like two or three minutes. I knew I just couldn't stay sour-faced for the whole half. I didn't want to be cancer for the team. So I just cheered them on. But, you know, it was real difficult.

COACH CALHOUN: As an antidote to that, I lied to him and I said, "I might put you back in." Blatant lie. If the game had got to plus nine or more, he would have gone back in. Our rule is two. I didn't think they would hopefully get that far away from us. So Emeka, publicly I will say I did lie to you (smiling).

Q. Can you talk about what it means to you to beat a team like Duke, especially when towards the end it looks like Duke had the game under control?

BEN GORDON: I think it just show, you know, our mental toughness. You know, people have doubted that all year from us. You know, I think it showed a lot, you know, from the whole team, you know, as far as mental toughness and things like that. You know, to beat a team like Duke, like coach says, they're not going to lose, you have to beat them. You know what I'm saying? They're not going to give you a game, you have to go out there and beat them. We did a really good job of that tonight.

EMEKA OKAFOR: It's means a lot. It's not who we beat, it's how we beat them. We down eight points, how many minutes left, the whole country probably thought we were out except us. For us to just come back, I don't remember the comeback, to tell you the truth. I just know we all just believed, and the next thing you know, we're up, game over, we're all hopping around. Everybody was jumping, celebrating. Dang, I forgot the dang question (laughter).

Q. Can you tell us about the play of the game, you're minus 1 and you take the ball away from Luol Deng to score in traffic. Phenomenal play.

EMEKA OKAFOR: I think it was a post pass, and then I had missed it. I missed a shot. I think Josh might have gotten a hand on it. I just saw this orange object floating in the air and said "grab me." I grabbed it, spun, saw the rim, thought it would be a good idea to put it in, and that's what I did.

Q. Did you want the ball at the end? Did you tell coach, your teammates, that you wanted the ball?

EMEKA OKAFOR: I mean, I wanted the ball, but my teammates wanted to give me the ball. I was just thinking that -- I mean, if it was there, I was going to take it. You know, we have a lot of talented players on the team. We didn't want to force anything. But if the opportunity prevailed itself, opened itself, we were going to take it.

Q. Given your foul trouble, how important was it for you then to bring the team back in the second half the way you did?

EMEKA OKAFOR: That was the season on the line. You know, it was a whole lot of hopes and dreams. I didn't do it myself. I had to have 11 other guys there with me. I just merely helped. So, I mean, given that, all of us just -- you know, we knew it was either now or never.

Q. How difficult a game was it to play in when the whistle was blowing every 15 seconds? Never seemed like you could get any kind of rhythm or flow. You have to play through it. How hard is it to play through it when something like that happens?

BEN GORDON: I mean, it's tough. We like more of the up-tempo, fast-flowing game. I think that's in our favor. When the game is going to slow down every 15 seconds or so, we really weren't getting most of the calls, you know, we were kind of frustrated. But we just had to really stick with it, you know.

EMEKA OKAFOR: You know, it was different. But, you know, we adjusted to it. Had no choice.

Q. Jim, you said if it was plus nine you were going to put him back in. Did you feel while you were watching the game that even though it didn't get to plus nine, that somehow they were gaining confidence and taking control of the game?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, quite frankly, my belief in this team, my love of this team, I knew their character would appear. You know, we were out of character when you see Daniel Ewing going down the lane, posting us easy, doing those kinds of things. I was concerned with the way we were playing, but I wasn't concerned because the games are 40 minutes. And I knew that this team wouldn't lose, that someone would have to beat them. If it had got to that point, I might have taken that chance. But I still had an incredible belief in this team, and always have. I've stated on record starting in September, this team's good enough to win a national championship. We were also good enough to get beat, because there's a lot of other good folks out there. My belief in them as people, my belief in them as players allowed me to see what you weren't seeing, and maybe what I wasn't even seeing. But I knew what was inside of them because I've been with them for so long.

Q. Guys, obviously this game takes a lot out of you physically. As you were walking up on stage, looked like you were emotionally spent. How much emotionally does a game like this take out of you?

EMEKA OKAFOR: I mean, it was pretty draining. You know, you have a whole lot of ups and downs. You know, things are going your way, then things are not. You know, you're back in it, you're back out of it. You're just like, that was hard. I mean, just staying in it mentally, it's hard. I mean, it's easy to look up at the clock, you know, see yourself down by eight with like, you know, next to nothing on the clock seemingly, and just give up. It's hard to believe that you can do it and, you know, put the effort to actually make it happen.

Q. Ben, Coach Calhoun has spent the last couple of days talking about how much the team learned and perhaps proved to itself when it was playing games with Emeka out. Can you explain about the attitude for those 16 minutes in the first half when you did play without him, somehow stayed close, stayed in the game?

BEN GORDON: I mean, our attitude is the same as it's been in the Big East tournament, other games when he was in foul trouble and we didn't have him at all. I think it was important, you know, we had those games in the past to build up to a point like this, you know, such an important game, you're losing, guys are still able to maintain focus. I think we just did a really good job -- although we didn't play well at some spurts in the first half, I think everybody maintained their focus and had the same goal in mind.

JOHN GERDES: Ben and Emeka, thank you very much. Questions for Coach Calhoun, please.

Q. You've obviously coached a team to a national championship at this point in time. Coming off of a game like this, how hard is the challenge of trying to get the focus onto the next game after expending this type of energy?

COACH CALHOUN: A late game like this, last time we were fortunate enough we beat Ohio State and then watched Duke and Michigan State sweat it out. That was a little easier. Neither one of those games, by the way, were like the two games tonight, which were incredible games. We were watching some of the Georgia Tech game on television. But I would think that Georgia Tech probably is, you know, used up a tad bit of emotion tonight, too. I don't think that when you're at this stage, and there's two guys and two teams left playing, that any excuse that Paul or myself could even think about, wildly think about, about the lack of energy, a lack of letdown. Both of us won games in which we certainly could have gone home, been proud of our teams, but certainly not competing for a national championship on Monday night. We'll go back to the room, get the kids something to eat, talk to them, and then we'll have them go to bed relatively early. I'll go to mass twice tomorrow because of that kind of game, you know. I did look at the score board, too, like Emeka, by the way. But I always believed. Because of I guess who I am in many ways, I truly always believe that we can win and I always believe we should win. We were down eight points, I felt we should and could win. I knew how difficult it would be. We just needed three or four stops. Easier said than done against Duke, but we were able to do it. I look at the stat sheet here. We shoot 62% in the second half, started to eliminate some of our turnovers. As I said, I have incredible respect. I've seen Duke on TV, and I don't think the team that we beat, which one year later would have been one of the great all time teams in Duke history, if they'd stayed together, we were older, the team that beat them, this team isn't quite as talented, but is much, much better defense basketball team, at least against us they were. I mean, the pressure they put on us for every pass, every dribble, was absolutely incredible. Yes, it will take something out of us. It will take something out of Paul's team. But don't I think standing on the podium for either one of us will be too big a carrot for either team not to play hopefully a great, great basketball team.

Q. Does an early season game matter, the fact that you've played these guys? Is it so long ago, it's a different year?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, we played without Emeka virtually. It was early in the season. With all that said, the fastest team we played this year was Georgia Tech. The most difficult team we matched up with was Georgia Tech. That was back in November. In April, actually funny saying April, but they are probably one of the fastest teams I've seen and one of the most difficult match-ups you have. We have a couple match-up problems for them, and it should be very interesting. But I don't think sometimes those games at this particular point, 30-something games later, will have a great significance on the play. The thing is, I think both teams also have a little feel for each other. At that time Rashad Anderson wasn't himself, they didn't see Emeka Okafor, we didn't see Schenscher, he's just a different player, also grown seven inches, too. He's got to be 8' 3. He dwarfed everybody on the court. He's the biggest guy I've seen in my life.

Q. What was the difference in your defense the last couple minutes?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, when we got together, near the last TV time-out, three-something to go on the clock, down seven, eight, nine points, whatever we were down, we talked with shell defense, a thing that we play. If we can stop them three or four times, we'll score. Teams just naturally -- it's a natural thing. You don't want to commit foolish fouls. I'm telling my kids the same thing in the huddle. Everything we talked about was to attack them, and then stops. Two things, we need to attack them on offense and we'll win this basketball game. We have to get stops. We haven't got them. They put a lot of points up on the second half. We need to get stops and we got those six stops in a row. We stopped them six times in a row until we made the basket with no time on the clock.

Q. Is it good for the game to have 44 fouls called in a Final Four game?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, the game itself is good for the game. The game itself is very good for the game because you saw two teams that could really play, really went at each other. The only statement I would make very simply is I think the game would have been higher score because both Mike and I love to get up and down, and the game itself certainly was one of the better basketball games, given the comeback and all those other things. Would I like to see more flow and more meaningful things kind of called? Sometimes I think, this is in defense of officials, which is probably a first for me, they get so many mixed signals about don't let it get too rough, watch the hand check, watch everything. We all know what a foul is and what a foul isn't. I'd like to see more flow in games, but the kids are so big and strong, so on. To answer your question, I would like to see the game in the 90s. I think that would have been good. But I think if you took the two games tonight and you're a basketball fan, between the drama, between the incredible hard work, between people diving on the floor like Josh Boone did for loose ball, calling for a time-out, gave us a big possession. All of things that were wrapped up into it. You have to love what we saw tonight.

Q. You talked a little bit about sitting Emeka. Could you talk about the end result of that, with him being in at the end of the game, and Marcus White is not. The second part is you mentioned a hard two-foul rule? When did you start that? Has that always been in your coaching repertoire?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, with Emeka, different players I've done it with different things. Generally speaking it's a standard rule I've always had. I found out people are a lot nicer to me, not with how well we played the game, but when we won it. I didn't know the president of Northeastern for the first 10 years. Then I went to the NCAA for five straight years and I knew the president. I don't know how all that happened. My point being they pay attention to winners, and very simply. So games can be won certainly in the second half, as long as you -- as long as you're in touch with the other team, as long as you don't allow the game to get away, et cetera, et cetera. That two-foul rule might be 20, 25 years old with me. I've made exceptions, sometimes on score, sometimes on style of play, sometimes with individual players who can avoid fouls. When you're in the midst of the war that was going on in the paint tonight, you weren't going to avoid fouls. So I was going -- even though I lied to Emeka, I was going to be as certain as I possibly could with that. I don't know if you know, we started the second half, he played Luol Deng, and we put Josh on Williams the first three plays that Mike ran, which would have been done the exact same thing, were right at Williams to try to draw that third or fourth foul on Emeka. Since we had him outside, it kind of made it a little bit easier. Point being simply, you know, I think that protecting your player is you got to believe, and I always have believed, that the games are 40 minutes. 32 years as a Division I head coach teaches you a lot of things can happen in 30 seconds, two minutes, four minutes, all that type of thing.

Q. Can you expand upon the play of Emeka Okafor in the second half, but particularly down the stretch when he simply would not allow your basketball team to lose?

COACH CALHOUN: From blocking shots to ripping the ball away from Luol, to yelling in the huddle when they fouled out to somebody, we brought the team over, you know, we can't let this get away. My message to the team stopped being technical excepts for stops and what plays we were running probably for the last 10 minutes of the game. We were all talking that in Emeka, he's an incredibly bright, young man obviously, but he was zoned. He was just so focused into winning that basketball game, that he took it upon himself. He was being very humble up there. Obviously, Josh played great. The team played great. To beat a Duke team under the conditions that were set forward, and I did tell him, you can't make the conditions, you just have to react from them. He's awfully special. He's the best player in America. He's the best role model I think in college basketball. I've said that before so many times. If you need any more further proof, tonight was another example why he's so special.

JOHN GERDES: Thank you very much, coach.


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