SAN ANTONIO – With a stunning end to a game that looked lost, Connecticut proved it can win the close ones, too.
Led by All-American Emeka Okafor (search), UConn scored 12 straight points down the stretch Saturday night to rally for a 79-78 victory over Duke and move one game away from the national title.
Okafor, who spent almost all of the first half on the bench in foul trouble, scored five points, grabbed three rebounds and shut down Duke's offense over the last four minutes, after Duke had taken a 75-67 lead.
The 6-foot-10 center, who can do a little of everything, finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.
In Monday night's final, the Huskies (search) will play Georgia Tech (search), a 67-65 winner over Oklahoma State earlier Saturday. UConn will go for its first championship since 1999, when it beat Duke.
The Blue Devils (search), who led almost the entire game, walked away losers in their first Final Four appearance since 2001, when they won it all. Coach Mike Krzyzewski lost a tough one, and will have to wait until next year to go for his 65th all-time NCAA tournament win, which would tie him for the record with North Carolina's Dean Smith.
Connecticut hadn't been challenged in the tournament at all, winning its four games by an average of about 17 points. The Blue Devils changed that.
Saddled with two fouls in the first four minutes that sent UConn coach Jim Calhoun into a tizzy against the refs, Okafor sat on the bench and didn't score a point before halftime.
Duke took advantage, ran the ball and pushed its lead to double figures.
In the end, though, it was the Blue Devils' foul trouble that did them in. All three of their centers — Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph and Nick Horvath — fouled out, and by the end, there was nobody to contain Okafor.
He gave UConn a 76-75 lead with 26 seconds left on a typically relentless sequence, missing a shot that bounced around the rim for a couple seconds, but grabbing the rebound for an easy stick back.
Duke came down and guard J.J. Redick drove the lane, but guess who was there? Okafor, and he stuck a hand in to help break up that scoring chance.
UConn's Rashad Anderson hit two free throws to push the lead to three, and after Redick barely grazed the rim with a 3-point attempt that would have tied it, Okafor got the rebound and made a free throw to ice the game.
Chris Duhon banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the final margin to one.
The win for UConn — the team that seems to have everything: versatile guards, four guys standing 6-10 or taller and, of course, Okafor — might have answered one of the few questions remaining: Could they handle a close game?
The answer was an emphatic "Yes." And now there's one more test to go, a rematch with the Yellow Jackets, who beat UConn 77-61 early in the season to knock the Huskies from the top spot in The Associated Press poll and let the nation know they were legit.
While Okafor languished on the bench early, guard Ben Gordon kept the Huskies within striking range. He finished with 18 points, and did just enough to overshadow a difficult game by his backcourt mate, Taliek Brown, who had four points and seven turnovers.
But the real star was Okafor.
Darting, ducking his shoulder, spinning and going up with power — on both ends of the floor — he controlled the final 20 minutes. Another great sequence came with about nine minutes left, when he launched himself up to swat a shot by Luol Deng. UConn got the ball, worked it to Okafor near the baseline, where he hit a pretty little 12-footer to cut UConn's deficit to 59-58.
The game was just warming up, though.
Duke's Daniel Ewing, one of five Blue Devils in double figures, hit three buckets to keep his team ahead. The last of the shots, a 3-pointer with 4:36 left, gave Duke a 73-64 lead.
Anderson responded with a 3 for UConn, then Duhon made two free throws to push the lead back to eight. As it turned out, those were the last points Duke would score until Duhon's meaningless 3 at the buzzer.