Result: Connecticut, 60-53 in 58 Possessions
Seminal Play: Two free throws by Pittsburgh forward Gilbert Brown cut Connecticut's lead down to 54-53 with 1:42 remaining in the game. The Panthers played strong halfcourt defense on the ensuing possession, but deep into the shot clock the Huskies' junior point guard bailed his team out. A.J. Price slipped his defender, drove into the lane, and finished at the rim with just two ticks left on the shot clock, a play which brought the capacity crowd of 16,000 roaring to its feet.
"They did an excellent job at the end of the clock on executing plays, going to the hoop," Pittsburgh forward DeJuan Blair said.
Quotable: “If you look at the tape of the game, it will be in black and white. It was much more of a Big East game that I was weaned on when I first came to this league. Everybody puts the gloves on—well, it's 12 rounds now, but it used to be 15 rounds—[and it's] last man standing.”
—Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, on the physical nature of the game.
What We Learned: Connecticut can be capable of shutting down a Big East team's three-point attack. Each of the Huskies' first eight conference opponents had hit at least six threes and shot at least 33 percent from long range. Combined, Connecticut's Big East foes were 83-of-195 from downtown, an average of over 10 makes a game at 43 percent. Pittsburgh, however, was only 2-of-16 on threes.
"It's just one of those things--I thought we had good shots," said Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, who felt the poor shooting from deep was more a result of his team not capitalizing on clear looks. "Our execution second half was very good offensively, we ran a lot of good sets, and got a number of open threes."
The Huskies, despite their extreme size, are not very good at keeping opponents off the offensive glass. The 7'3” Hasheem Thabeet, 6'10” Stanley Robinson, and 6'9” Jeff Adrien were unable to prevent the Panthers 6'7” freshman DaJuan Blair from getting nine offensive rebounds, and Pittsburgh rebounded a very solid 40 percent of its misses from the field.
The Big Picture: Connecticut keeps beating quality opponents and is quickly climbing up the rankings as a result. Five games ago, the team was in disarray, coming off a bad home loss to Providence and facing the disciplinary suspension of two key players. Now, after collecting five straight wins, three of which came over teams in the Pomeroy Top 20 and three over teams in the AP Top 25, it is clear that in the 16-team Big East only Georgetown can definitively state that it is a better team than the Huskies.
HARTFORD, Conn.—The Huskies found an unexpected source of offense at the exact right moment Saturday afternoon.
Perimeter-starved Connecticut got a huge three-pointer from guard Craig Austrie with two minutes left, which broke open a stalemate and helped Connecticut surge to a 60-53 win over Pittsburgh at the XL Center in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated.
The Huskies (16-5, 6-3 Big East) receive less of their offense from long range than all but three other D-I schools, and made just four three-pointers overall in the contest. But when coach Jim Calhoun called a timeout after Pittsburgh (17-5, 5-4) tied the game up for the seventh time, the subsequent possession, Connecticut's most crucial of the game, did not result in a drive to the basket by junior point guard A.J. Price or a low-post dump to one of the Huskies' frontcourt beasts, as might be expected. Instead, Price penetrated and kicked it to Austrie, open on the perimeter with 2:03 showing on the clock.
“A.J.'s a point guard, I'm a point guard; we kind of know what each other wants without talking,” Austrie said. “I knew that he was going to drive, and I just went to the spot that I thought that he was going to pass the ball to.”
The shot made the score 54-51, a three-point lead for Connecticut that seemed much larger in a defensive struggle that played out over an extremely slow 58 possessions. That advantage proved too much to fight back from for an undermanned and undersized Pittsburgh squad, which is without point guard Levance Fields and forward Mike Cook. Forward Gilbert Brown cut the lead to one with two free throws on the next possession, but Price answered right back with a driving layup. The Panthers then couldn't connect on three-pointers during each of their final three trips, misses that were the most agonizing part of a dismal 2-of-16 performance from long range for the game.
Pittsburgh, which entered having scored 1.10 points per possession in its eight Big East games, put up only 0.91 against the much bigger Huskies, thanks primarily to some uncharacteristically-sound Connecticut perimeter defense—and a bit of good luck. Repeatedly driven to the exterior by the length of 7'3” center Hasheem Thabeet and the physical play of 6'9” forward Jeff Adrien, the Panthers shot the lowest percentage from three of any Huskies opponent this season, with the fewest makes from long range of any Connecticut Big East opponent.
“We just did a great job firing out at people, making their shots contested,” Price said of the Huskies' perimeter defense, which entered having allowed teams to shoot a robust 38 percent from deep. “Sometimes we give away some easy [threes], and tonight we gave away about one of two, and they missed them. They just weren't dropping for them, and we [also] did a great job closing out, contesting.”
“Our bigs were doing a good job of getting the guards over the screens—they were hedging out big until we got there,” Austrie added.
The best team in the nation at defending two-point shots due to their sheer size, the Huskies held the Panthers to 39.5 percent shooting from inside the arc, but that figure obscured the strong work done by Pittsburgh forwards Sam Young and DeJuan Blair. Giving up eight inches to Thabeet, who guarded him throughout the game, the freshman Blair, fifth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, was able to grab nine offensive boards, more than the entire Connecticut team. Blair had six of those rebounds and scored 11 points after the break, which helped to keep the game close in a tense second half that featured five ties and seven lead changes.
Although he shot only 7-of-21 from the floor, including 0-of-5 from three-point range, 6'6” senior forward Young played an admirable game against the larger Huskies front line. After Connecticut took a three-point lead with 5:41 to play, Young hit mid-range jumpers on three straight Pittsburgh possessions to keep the Panthers within one point. On the team's fourth trip, Blair was fouled with 2:32 to play and hit both ends of a one-and-one, tying the score at 59 and prompting the Calhoun timeout which preceded Austrie's big shot.
Besides the exceptional defensive effort, the Huskies' victory had a large part to do with their free-throw shooting. Price was able to consistently drive the lane and draw a foul, hitting 8-of-9 from the stripe, and the Huskies hit all four of their free throws in the final minute to put the game in the books. Connecticut, which entered with a 71 percent free-throw percentage, was 18-of-21 from the line for the game.
The second half saw both offenses pick up after a particularly brutal initial period. While the game was tied at 22 at halftime, a 0.71 points per possession clip, the Panthers had reason to be disappointed that they weren't leading. Pittsburgh forced 11 Connecticut turnovers in the opening half and was up 21-13 with 4:31 to play after two Young free throws, but was 0-of-3 with two turnovers in its six possessions leading into the break, which allowed the Huskies to go on an 8-1 run. Connecticut committed only three turnovers in the second half.
Price continued his exceptional play in the absence of guard Jerome Dyson, who failed a drug test and is out for the month of February. The Huskies point guard had game-highs of 21 points and five assists and also grabbed six rebounds. Thabeet finished with five blocks and seven rebounds, while Young led Pittsburgh with 18 points, and Blair had 13 to go along with 13 total boards.
The victory for Connecticut was the team's fifth in a row, and third straight against a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 (Pittsburgh is ranked 18th). The surging Huskies will travel to Syracuse on Wednesday, while the Panthers return home Thursday to take on West Virginia.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.