Originally created 03/27/04

Biggest challenge in front of Tide



PHOENIX - Mark Gottfried never got this far in the NCAA Tournament as a terrific player on some good Alabama teams.

So he, more than most, appreciates this ride on a Crimson tidal wave to the Phoenix Regional final today against Connecticut.

"Alabama is a special place for me," the Crimson Tide coach said Friday. "I wore the uniform and met my wife there, so I am really excited for our program. These guys have taken our program to a place that we've never been.

"We'll be a lot more excited if we can get the job done tomorrow and get to the Final Four."

The eighth-seeded Tide (20-12) beat top-seeded Stanford to get to Phoenix, then knocked off defending NCAA champion Syracuse, 80-71 on Thursday night, to advance to a regional final for the first time in school history.

"We definitely feel like we are living the life right now, out here in Phoenix, having fun in the sun," Alabama's Antoine Pettway said. "But at the same time, it is like a business trip. We know we have a job to do."

The next obstacle is UConn, the preseason No. 1 team in the country, an awesome assemblage of talent with the nation's best big man in the middle.

"Man, we're going to have to play close to a perfect game," Pettway said. "One to seven probably, they're the top players in the country. But I think we can pull it off."

Connecticut (30-6), the region's No. 2 seed, outrebounded Vanderbilt 44-21 in its 73-53 pounding of the Commodores on Thursday night. The Huskies, winners of six straight and 11 of their past 12, are healthy and playing like the powerhouse everyone expected them to be.

"I feel the same way as I have all the way through," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "We're good enough to win the national championship. We just have to be good enough tomorrow to win a 40-minute game."

Connecticut is much bigger than Alabama and almost as quick. The Huskies hold teams to a 37 percent field goal percentage, best in the country. Of course the Tide, like virtually every other team in the country, has no one to counter the Huskies' Emeka Okafor inside.

No one can duplicate Okafor in practice, Calhoun said, but for a team facing him the third time "maybe at least the fear factor or the intimidation that he can cause in the post" would be lessened.