PHOENIX -- If Connecticut had what Huskies coach Jim Calhoun called a "normal center," Purdue might have had a chance of knocking off the top-seed in the West Regional on Thursday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Instead, the Boilermakers ran into 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet, and thus are headed home as Connecticut advanced to the Elite 8 with a 72-60 victory (RECAP |BOX SCORE).
Thabeet said his teammates encouraged him to be more assertive during halftime and he responded with 10 of his 15 points after the break.
"We've been on [Thabeet]," Calhoun said. "In the first two games of the tournament he didn't have to take over. Today, he was just special."
Thabeet, who added 15 rebounds, got help from unsung senior Craig Austrie, who scored a team-high 17 points, 10 above his season average.
"I've always believed in Craig," Calhoun said. "He has always been our [Jonathan] Papelbon, our closer. This year something has been missing at times, but when we have really needed him in the tournament, defensively and offensively, he has given it to us."
Three things we learned:
1. Even when A.J. Price isn't great, he is still very good. On two possessions 70 seconds apart in the second half, Price got into the lane and hit tough shots with the shot clock winding down. On the first, he made a runner of Lewis Jackson and on the second he converted a shot pull-up jumper over Chris Kramer. He made only five of 15 shots, but there is little doubt that when Connecticut absolutely needs a basket, Price is going to get the call.
"The whole game I felt I was getting to the spots but wasn't able to finish," Price said. "I told myself to stay with it and I would finish the plays off and make some big baskets. Then I made two or three tough floaters in the lane. I was just staying with it and being persistent."
2. Purdue failed to take advantage of its opportunities. The Boilermakers seemed on the verge of seizing the momentum several times but poor decision-making ended promising spurts. The most glaring came early in the second half, after the Boilermakers cut the lead to 34-31. Purdue got a stop on defense and then hurried up court only to loft an alley-oop attempt to sophomore center JaJuan Johnson. Standing between him and the basket was all 7-foot-3 of Thabeet, who simply reached up and snatched the as if the pass was intended for him. Connecticut went on an 8-0 run shortly thereafter to take back control of the game.
3. The allegations of NCAA violations didn't seem to faze the Huskies. If the Huskies had started poorly, it could have been a sign they were distracted. Instead, they ran out to leads of 8-0 and 14-3. Calhoun said he spoke with Connecticut athletic director Jeff Hathaway for 30 minutes Thursday morning about the reported violations, "and he said to go get Purdue . . . .We will do the things on the outside we need to do but my job is to coach the basketball team here." Added Price: "It felt great to get out on the court and just play basketball. That's what we know how to do and know how to focus on.
Player who impressed me
Stanley Robinson. The Connecticut forward scored 10 points but it was his defense on Purdue star Robbie Hummel in the second half that really stood out. Hummel scored 15 points in the first half but only two in the second after Calhoun made the switch to the 6-9 Robinson.
"We feared that Stanley would get into foul trouble [in the first half]," Calhoun said. "But we made sure to go to him in the second half. We thought he could be our ace card against Hummel."
It is never a good idea to play a basketball game in a football stadium because you can't help but have large empty sections. Still, there seemed more empty seats than normal. Perhaps the 4 p.m. start was to blame, and maybe there was close to the 20,101 fans stated in attendance figures, but if you looked down the long length of the court, the thin crowd looked like something from a Clippers game and not the Sweet 16.
Huskies fans can be encouraged by Thabeet's assertiveness and the emergence of Austrie. It is often an unsung player that makes the difference in March, and in Austrie and Robinson, Connecticut has two players who can be difference-makers during those stretches when Price and Thabeet aren't dominant.