Okafor still a sore subject

PHOENIX -- The Emeka Okafor Farewell Tour will continue on to the Final Four (that's the good news), but UConn better bring ice packs, a masseuse and its usual assortment of backup centers.

Thanks to a blacktop-quality 87-71 rout of Alabama, the Huskies advanced Saturday to their second Final Four in the last six seasons. But there was a sales slip stapled to the win.

Okafor, the national player of the year candidate and lottery-pick-waiting-to-happen, spent nearly the entire second half of the game on the bench with what he later described as a "stinger" to his right shoulder. Wonderful. Now he has something else to talk about, other than the lower back stress fracture that forced him to miss the first two games of the recent Big East tournament.

Okafor's injury was about it for UConn downers. The second-seeded Huskies breezed through the Phoenix Regional as if their charter bus was double parked outside the America West Arena. They won their four games by an average of 17.5 points. They led at halftime of those four games -- Vermont, DePaul, Vanderbilt and now Alabama -- by 17.7 points. Is that any good?

Saturday afternoon against a better-than-you-think Bama team, UConn was so dominant that perfectionist Jim Calhoun was left with few, if any, criticisms of the day's events. There was Okafor's injury ... and freshman Josh Boone could have made more than 2 of 9 free throws ... and, uh, the trombone player for the UConn pep band could have hit that high C better. Otherwise, what was there not to love about this one?

"I was thinking, 'If I was sitting on that (Alabama) bench what would I do next?' " said the UConn coach.

Not much.

Bama's Mark Gottfried tried a little of everything: man-to-man, zone, prayer. But none of it mattered on a day when regional most outstanding player Ben Gordon scored 36 points, or when Rashad Anderson scored a career-high 28 points (6-for-6 on first-half 3s) and, after an NBA-distance trey from the baseline, actually blew imaginary smoke from his shooting hand. And did we mention the five blocks from Okafor -- three of them in about 15 seconds -- or point guard Taliek Brown's 39-minute, one- turnover game?

"We played some great teams this year," said Bama's Gottfried, whose Crimson Tide (20-13) endured the toughest schedule in the country, "but they made believers out of me today, that's for sure."

Could he remember the last team he saw that was this good?

"Maybe '95, when I was at UCLA," Gottfried said.

Hmmm, 1995. That was the season UCLA won a national championship.

The last time UConn (31-6) left Phoenix as regional winners was 1999, the same season it won its own national title. If the Huskies hope to do it again they'll likely need Okafor, who is the defensive equivalent of too much hair in a sink drain.

Alabama tried going hard at Okafor, but he isn't the nation's leading shot blocker by accident. Wilsons went up ... and then back. Before long, Tide players started settling for fadeaway jumpers.

"I think early in the game he had us rattled a little bit," Gottfried said.

But then with 9:19 remaining in the half, Okafor was fouled clean but hard by Jermareo Davidson. Okafor took the blow to his head, made the basket, but then grabbed his right shoulder and began flexing his right hand. His free throw didn't even reach the front of the rim. Moments later he was on the bench.

Okafor returned to the game later in the half, but continued to flex his hand and fingers. He started the second half, but pulled himself out of the lineup with 16:33 remaining in the game and UConn up 59-36.

Calhoun said afterward that Okafor had tingling and numbness in the arm, hand and fingers, "but he should be fine by the middle of the week." Okafor himself said he could have played again if needed -- but he didn't say how well he could have functioned. And for what it's worth, when it came time to snip a strand of net in the postgame celebration, Okafor used his right hand to do the cutting. Just in case, Okafor will undergo an MRI exam.

UConn has won without Okafor this season. It won with him in foul trouble, and it won with him sidelined by a nagging back injury. But there is a difference between winning the Big East tournament and winning a Final Four.

Of course, don't mention that to Gordon. The junior guard, who is expected to join Okafor in the upcoming NBA Draft, has all but carried the Huskies during March. He had 20 points against Vandy in the regional semi, and then those 36 points against Bama -- 18 in each half.

"I think me and Rashad were kind of unconscious," Gordon said.

A trip to the Alamodome ought to serve a nice smelling salt.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior reporter at ESPN The Magazine.