Thabeet provides a big lift
UConn shakes off cobwebs, Purdue
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 last night. The Boilermakers seemed to have an answer for everything the Huskies threw at them - except for the 7-foot-3-inch Thabeet.
Thabeet, the Big East co-player of the year, scored 15 points, had 15 rebounds, and blocked 4 shots as top-seeded UConn overcame a sluggish first half to defeat Purdue, 72-60, in the West Regional semifinals.
"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 (30-4) will play third-seeded Missouri (31-6), 102-91 victors over Memphis.
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
UConn jumped out to an 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 5 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 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, but they ran off the court to the cheers of their followers.
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 UConn's first 8 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.
"We tried to put them away three, four, five different times, and every time they came back," Price said.
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, who outrebounded Purdue, 48-33.
"You've got to shoot the basketball at a very high percentage if you're going to beat them, if you get outrebounded by 15," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "It is very difficult to keep those guys off the glass. They have a great team, and you've just got to tip your hat to them."
Using its superior size and ability, UConn jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first three minutes. It looked as if Purdue would be blown halfway back to West Lafayette, Ind. But the Boilermakers regrouped and made a game of it.
"We did accomplish a lot this season," said Robbie Hummel, who led Purdue with 17 points. "We've been in the Sweet 16 now. We're going to be hungry to make it farther next year."