Rashad Anderson has been in the starting lineup since becoming more defensive minded.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published April 5, 2004
SAN ANTONIO, Texas - When his team last faced Georgia Tech, and lost in a stunning upset, Connecticut sophomore Rashad Anderson was a different player.
The former Lakeland Kathleen star wasn't a starter and wasn't defensive minded, which had a lot to do with his role off the bench.
"I just finally said to him, "You're not playing until you play defense,' " UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "He has made great, great strides."
Anderson has been a mainstay in the starting lineup since late February and is a big reason the Huskies are in tonight's championship game. He's also a big reason why this game against the Yellow Jackets might have a different result than the Preseason NIT semifinal Nov.26 at Madison Square Garden, a 77-61 Tech win.
"They've made a change in the starting lineup putting Anderson in," Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "He's a 40 percent 3-point shooter, which is outstanding."
But the 6-5, 220-pound Anderson wasn't outstanding Nov.26. He made 4 of 13 shots, including 0-for-2 from beyond the arc, and was 0-for-3 from the free-throw line. In fact, the first two-thirds of the season, he was the model of inconsistency.
"It was kind of difficult early, but I always told myself I was playing hard," Anderson said. "When I got my chance, I just really exploited to the fullest."
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Anderson had been preparing for this for years. He grew up trying to best older brother David, now 28 and a former UCF player, at one-on-one in their driveway.
"I felt if I could beat him, I could beat anybody," said Anderson, 20. "I can remember countless hours playing one-on-one and he (always) beat me. I'd be out there a couple hours longer at night, and the neighbors would be mad. "Put up the ball. It's 3 o'clock in the morning.' My competitive nature really came from him."
His breakthrough came when he was 16.
"I was like, "It's over. You're not beating me anymore,' " he said.
Who did? He averaged nearly 23 points during his career at Kathleen and drew interest from major programs - Florida, Alabama, Texas, UCLA and UConn. His ability left an impression. So did his personality.
He's an affable, fun-loving prankster. He'll slip hot sauce into a sleeping teammate's mouth during a bus ride. He'll jump out from the darkness in the gym at 1 a.m. to try to scare a teammate like Emeka Okafor. When Calhoun visited his home on a recruiting trip, Anderson greeted him wearing a wig, fake teeth and an imitation, floor-length chinchilla jacket.
"He's like the life of party, getting people smiling," senior point guard Taliek Brown said.
Huskies fans are having the same reaction.
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UConn has won all 11 games Anderson started. In that span, he's averaged 14.8 points on 43.6 percent shooting.
Anderson hit a career-high 28 against Alabama in the region final by making 6 of 9 3-pointers, drawing some taunts from a frustrated Crimson Tide fan that he couldn't keep it up. He winked, blew on his hands and continued shooting.
"He has something that most of us should try to have more of, myself included certainly, and that's resiliency," Calhoun said. "Whatever happens, he's just going to keep going. For a lot of us, things stop us along the way. What some see as obstacles, Rashad sees as challenges."
In the Huskies' dramatic 79-78 comeback against Duke on Saturday, Anderson hit a pair of 3s to key a 15-5 run in the final 4:44.
"You have to feel loose on the court," he said. "Even though there's millions and millions of people watching the game last night (Saturday), you can't be afraid to take big shots. That's what you play college basketball for; for moments like this."
But for a change, it was his defense that stole the show. With 12 seconds left and UConn up one, he reached in and knocked the ball away from a driving J.J. Redick. He got the ball, drew the foul and made both free throws.
"After I hugged him last night, I said, "I have just a small question for you. You were wonderful down the stretch; you were terrific. Do you know the way you played Redick in the last three minutes? What happened to the first 37?' " Calhoun said. "He's made great progress ... (but) he's a much better basketball player now than he's showing."