UConn overcomes sluggish first half, eliminates Purdue

Friday, March 27, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Connecticut hardly needed Hasheem Thabeet as it romped through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

That all changed against a gritty Purdue team. The Boilermakers seemed to have an answer for everything the Huskies threw at them -- except for the 7-foot-3 Thabeet.

Thabeet, the Big East co-player of the year, scored 15 points, had 15 rebounds and blocked four shots, and top-seeded Connecticut overcame a sluggish first half to defeat Purdue 72-60 in the NCAA West Regional semifinals Thursday.

"Hasheem just took the game over," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "Purdue, quite frankly, ran into one of the best players in America in Hasheem Thabeet. Beyond that, the game might have been different if we had just, quote, a regular center."

The Huskies advanced to Saturday's West final against third-seeded Missouri, which defeated No.2 seed Memphis 102-91 in the late game.

It was Thabeet's 18th double-double of the season, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Huskies.

One day after a Yahoo! Sports report alleged UConn committed NCAA recruiting violations, the Huskies (30-4) reached the regional finals for the fourth time since 2002.

Calhoun said he had a "fruitful" phone conversation with UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway on Thursday morning but wouldn't go into details.

UConn jumped out to an early 11-point lead, then went cold and let the fifth-seeded Boilermakers (27-10) claw back into the game.

The first half looked like it belonged in a Thanksgiving tournament, not the third round of the NCAAs.

UConn shot only 39.4 percent from the floor, but it led by five points at intermission because Purdue was even worse (33.3 percent).

No one was colder than UConn's Jeff Adrien, who was 1-for-9 from the floor and missed his only free throw.

The Huskies had won their first two NCAA tourney games by an average of 41 points, but it was obvious they were in for a fight against the defense-oriented Boilermakers. The Boilermakers trailed 30-25 at halftime.

In the UConn locker room at halftime, Thabeet said his teammates told him to step it up.

"They know I'm capable of doing a lot of stuff," said Thabeet, a junior from Tanzania. "Today, the second half, they told me to go back there and do what you do all season long."

Thabeet did exactly that. He scored Connecticut's first eight points of the second half, then blocked a shot to set up a fast-break layup by A.J. Price, who scored 10 of his 15 points after halftime.

That play was part of an 8-0 run that gave the Huskies a 42-31 cushion with 13:37 to play.

What's more, it told the Boilermakers that they were overmatched in the middle.

But it took Purdue a while to get the message. The Boilermakers answered with a 7-0 burst, and soon they had pulled within 44-40 with 11:24 to play.

But Thabeet dunked to push the lead back to 57-45 with 6:28 to play, and that was pretty much it for Purdue.

Craig Austrie added 17 points, and Stanley Robinson had 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Huskies.

UConn outrebounded Purdue 48-33.

East Regional Pittsburgh 60, Xavier 55

Levance Fields pointed Pittsburgh in the right direction just in time -- as usual.

For the second straight game, the orchestrator of the offense took the big shots himself, hitting a 3-pointer with 50.9 seconds left, then scoring off his steal as the top-seeded Panthers reached the regional finals for the first time in 35 years.

One more win and they'll be headed to Detroit for the Final Four.

Pitt (31-4) trailed 54-52 before Fields connected. He then poked the ball away from B.J. Raymond and went in for a layup with 23.9 seconds to go.

Fields scored 14 points, and Dejuan Blair had 10 points and 17 rebounds in the East semifinal victory. The Panthers overcame an eight-point halftime deficit.

Villanova 77, Duke 54

Dante Cunningham scored 14 points with 11 rebounds and third-seeded Villanova beat Duke for the first time in more than 50 years, taking advantage of the Blue Devils' poor shooting to win 77-54 Thursday night and advance to the NCAA regional final.

The Wildcats (29-7) will play Big East rival Pittsburgh (31-4), the top seed in the East, on Saturday for a trip to the Final Four.

Duke (30-7), which spent a week at No. 1 in the nation earlier this season, failed to reach the round of eight for the fifth consecutive year.

Kyle Singler scored 15 and Jon Scheyer had 13 for the second-seeded Blue Devils. But Scheyer and Gerald Henderson combined to make just four of 32 attempts as Duke shot a season-low 26.7 percent from the floor.

-- The Associated Press

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