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UConn regains its final eight magic 71-59

Connecticut ended Southern Illinois' magical march through the NCAA Tournament.

Caron Butler scored 19 points, and Emeka Okafor provided big plays at both ends Friday night, leading UConn to the final eight with a 71-59 victory over 11th-seeded SIU in the East Region semifinals.

"We couldn't sleep on this team," Butler said. "Being a lower seed, they were a dangerous team to look out for."

UConn had trouble shaking SIU.

Led by transfer Rolan Roberts, who scored 24, the Salukis hung around, despite trailing by 12. After beating No. 6 Texas Tech and No. 3 Georgia in the first two rounds, the Missouri Valley Conference co-champions hoped to spring another mid-major conference upset on the Big East, as Kent State did to Pitt on Thursday.

But UConn (27-6), seeded second in the East, displayed the grit that won the Big East tournament, keeping its poise and holding on. Every time Southern Illinois threatened, the Huskies answered.

"We don't have better players," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "We just have more of them."

UConn moved into Sunday's East Region championship game against Maryland, which defeated Kentucky.

UConn is in the final eight for the first time since 1999, when it won its only NCAA championship at Tropicana Field. The Huskies didn't even make the tournament last year, and they were knocked out in the second round by Tennessee in 2000.

The 6-foot-9 Okafor and the backcourt savvy of Tony Robertson proved vital for Connecticut. Robertson's ballhandling kept UConn in control, and Okafor's size broke SIU's spirit.

At one juncture, Okafor, who set a school record with 136 blocks, batted away a shot by Jermaine Dearman. Then Okafor followed by converting two opportunities under the basket with dunks.

UConn's lead soon reached double digits. And with Dearman saddled by four fouls and the Salukis converting just 1-of-14 3-point shots overall, it was too much.

Southern Illinois (28-8) gave it a good try, cutting UConn's lead to 61-55, but the Huskies' depth wore the Salukis down.

Dearman finished with 17 points, but Kent Williams, SIU's leading scorer, was held to seven.

Roberts carried the Salukis in the early going, scoring their first four baskets and seven of their first nine. But he missed his easiest chance on an alley-oop pass when he mistimed his leap to the basket.

Except for Roberts, who scored 16 in the first half, Southern Illinois was erratic from the field. There were three air balls, two on the same sequence and a flurry of missed opportunities.

"They were a little better than we were," SIU coach Bruce Weber said.