04/05/2004 12:00AM

Ga. Tech the pick in NCAA title game


LAS VEGAS - Monday's NCAA championship game between Georgia Tech and Connecticut will be hard-pressed to match the drama of last Saturday's national semifinals, a.k.a. the Final Four.

Georgia Tech's 67-65 upset of Oklahoma St. as a 5-point underdog and UConn's 79-78 non-covering win as a 2 1/2-point favorite over Duke were two for the ages. OK, it's debatable whether or not they'll be shown years from now on ESPN Classic, but they were great games that went down to the wire and left viewers - and especially bettors - on the edge of their seats.

Both games worked out for yours truly as I had the two underdogs from the ACC and improved my bankroll plays to 19-10 (65.6 percent) for the tournament.

Georgia Tech was in control throughout before Oklahoma St. rallied to make a game of it. The only fear was if the game went to overtime and OSU had a great run to get the cover. The score was tied 65-65, but Will Bynum's driving layup with 1.5 seconds left won it for the Yellow Jackets.

The marquee matchup was similar with Duke building a big lead, but when they didn't put UConn, it left the result in doubt, especially in relation to the point spread because of the lower number. Duke led 75-67 with 3:09 remaining, but UConn scored 12 unanswered points and actually were covering 79-75 after Emeka Okafor made the second of two free throws with 3 seconds left. Duke threw the ball to halfcourt and Chris Duhon tossed up a running shot from 35 feet away. CBS announcer Jim Nantz said "It doesn't matter," but it sure mattered to a lot of his viewers as the ball banked off the glass and into the basket to make the final score, 79-78, giving Duke bettors a pointspread cover if not an outright win.

Now we await the championship game on Monday night and wonder if it can live up to those two games.

at San Antonio, Texas

UConn opened as a 6-point favorite, but as of this writing (early Monday morning), the line was down to UConn -5 at most sports books with some 5.5s available. But since 5 is the most common number, that's the one I'll go with even though you can trust I'll be shopping to see if it drifts up toward 6.

This was a tough line to choose a side because Georgia Tech was a 5-point underdog to Kansas in the regional finals and a 5-point dog to Oklahoma St. on Saturday, so based on the fact most people think UConn would be favored over either Kansas or Oklahoma St., I can't argue with anyone who thinks this line is short. I wrote earlier in the tournament on several occasions that if the number is shaded too low that there is value on the favorite.

However, when I break down the matchup and try to determine how this game might play out, I have to take the points with Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets have truly won as a team as they've played the last three games virtually without leading scorer B.J. Elder. But they play great defense and everyone has stepped up to fill the scoring void.

Okafor, after sitting most of the first half vs. Duke with foul trouble, really came through in the clutch. He's not expected to miss as much playing time on Monday night, and that's what I'm sure a lot of UConn bettors are counting on, but I don't see him dominating even if he plays 40 minutes. Tech's 7-foot-1 Luke Schenscher has really improved over the course of the season and gives the Yellow Jackets an inside presence. He isn't as physical as Okafor, but his height alone will alter some shots.

The talented guards for UConn - Rashad Anderson, Taliek Brown and especially Ben Gordon - have received a lot of praise, but I feel Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack, Marvin Lewis and Will Bynum will outscore them. They have all been picking up the scoring slack for Elder, but the key is that Tech has the edge on the defensive end, and that could also lead to points in transition as well as creating several times when UConn might have trouble getting the ball in to Okafor or their other big men before the shot clock expires.

One part of my prediction with the UConn-Duke that didn't pan out was in writing "UConn hit only 60.5 percent from the line during the season, and that is very likely to come back to haunt them here." UConn went 5-for-6 in the final minute and didn't choke at all, but that was when they were behind and not getting fouled much. With Georgia Tech's depth, expect them not to give up as many easy baskets in the paint and perhaps send UConn to the foul line a lot more. If UConn returns to its poor form, that alone could keep the Huskies from pulling way and at least get us the pointspread win with Georgia Tech if not the outright upset.

PLAY: Georgia Tech for 1 unit.

Final Four picks: 2-0. Bankroll record: 19-10 for a net profit of 8 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Record on non-bankroll plays: 14-19-1. Record on all tournament games: 33-29-1.

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