College basketball fans were getting familiar with UConn-Duke, at least as a postseason rivalry. The programs had met in a regional final in 1990, won by Duke at the buzzer. They played in the 1999 NCAA final, when UConn won a great championship battle. The 2004 UConn-Duke game provided another memorable chapter.
UConn was led by Emeka Okafor down low and Ben Gordon on the perimeter. They finished second in the Big East, but won the conference tournament, got the #2 seed in the West Regional and then rolled to the Final Four with ease.
Duke won the ACC title led by Luol Deng and held the #1 seed in the South. They too captured their regional, beating an Illinois team that would make a serious run at perfection one year later and surviving a determined Xavier squad.
The NCAA bracket had Duke and UConn on the same side this year, so it was Semi-Final Saturday in San Antonio that they renewed their postseason rivalry. Okafor picked up two early fouls and spent the last 16 minutes of the first half on the bench. Duke built a 41-34 lead by halftime and still led 75-67 with four minutes to go.
But now Duke had the relevant foul problem and its big men were fouling out. Okafor was rested and ready, scoring 18 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the second half. Gordon knocked down 18 of his own, and the Huskies scored 12 consecutive points. At 79-75, the victory was all but sealed, but for those who had wagered on the game, there was still one final play.
UConn was favored by anywhere from 2-3 points, depending on the sports book. Duke guard Chris Duhon got the ball as the clock ticked to zero near halfcourt, and in despair, just halfheartedly chucked the ball to the hoop. It went in. Casual fans thought nothing of it. But the finals score of 79-78 meant that Duke had covered the number.
It was estimated that anywhere from $30 million to $100 million had changed hands. Duhon’s shot didn’t make One Shining Moment, CBS’ traditional Monday postgame tribute, but its financial value was much higher.
Speaking of Monday night, there was an anticlimactic championship game to play. UConn had lost earlier in the year to Georgia Tech, but there would be no reprise of that in the 2004 NCAA final.
Okafor dominated from the outset, with 24 points/15 rebounds, and his team won an 82-73 game more decisive than the score makes it sound. Okafor won Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and UConn was national champs for the second time in six seasons.