PITTSBURGH — Two games, two UConn losses, two big performances by Pitt’s Sam Young. By now, Connecticut could be excused for not wanting to see the Panthers again, yet the Huskies can’t wait for the next matchup. Or maybe the next two.
Young dominated one of this season’s biggest games with 31 points and No. 3 Pittsburgh likely secured one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament, opening a 14-point lead early in the second half before holding off top-ranked Connecticut 70-60 on Saturday.
Pitt (28-3, 15-3 Big East) had never beaten a No. 1-ranked team in school history, only to accomplish it twice in less than a month—both times against Connecticut (27-3, 15-3), which still hasn’t figured out how to slow down Young.
Pitt becomes the seventh school to beat a top-ranked team twice in a season, the last North Carolina over Duke in 1998.
“Every time I see those UConn jerseys, my eyes light up,” said Young, who scored 25 points in Pitt’s 76-68 win at Hartford on Feb. 16.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun used all the superlatives to describe Young— including “fantastic,” “magnificent” and “very special”—yet he and his players are eager to see the Panthers again, perhaps in next week’s Big East tournament. Or maybe beyond.
“I guarantee you we’re going to see them again, nine times out of 10 we’re going to see them in the Big East tournament and we’re going to be ready for them,” said the Huskies’ Stanley Robinson, who had six points and 12 rebounds. “We could see them after that—in the NCAAs, semifinals or national championship or whatever.”
Calhoun called the Panthers a potential national championship team, but still thinks he has the team to beat them.
“Do I think we can beat Pitt?” Calhoun asked. “Yes, but we are 0-2 and I don’t have any graphic evidence to support that.”
The Panthers had to wait for the outcome of Saturday night’s game between No. 6 Louisville and West Virginia to see if they would win a share of the Big East regular season title. If West Virginia won, Pittsburgh and Louisville would be tied with the Panthers getting the No. 1 seed in next week’s tournament. A Louisville win and Pitt would get the tiebreaker over UConn and the No. 2 seed.
The Panthers did it a different way than they did in winning at UConn, when 6-foot-7 DeJuan Blair pushed around 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet for 22 points and 23 rebounds and Thabeet ended with only five points and four rebounds. This time, Blair had eight points and eight rebounds in a relatively quiet performance and Thabeet had all 14 of his points in the first half.
“Hasheem was limited only by the fact we didn’t get him the ball enough in the second half,” Calhoun said.
Thabeet, who had nine shots in the first half and two in the second, credited a Pitt defense that held UConn to 37.7 percent shooting (23-of-61). A.J. Price led the Huskies with 19 points but missed 10 of 15 shots.
“Every time I got the ball inside, they came over and doubled me,” Thabeet said. “In the first half, somehow they thought they could stop me 1-on-1, and they didn’t double. The second half, they adjusted.”
Thabeet didn’t allow himself get pushed around this time, either, not backing off when he and Blair went for a loose ball early in the second half and Thabeet initiated the contact.
“He got me once,” Thabeet said, referring to the earlier game. “He tried to (get) me twice, and he wasn’t going to get me twice.”
Calhoun, critical of the way the officials allowed Pitt to play physically when it outrebounded UConn 48-31 in the first game, had no such complaints this time.
“I didn’t want to be on YouTube again,” said Calhoun, aware that some enthusiastic Pitt students handed out hundreds of white hankies labeled “Calhoun Crying Towels.”
Young scored the two biggest baskets of the game after Connecticut went on a 12-0 run, keyed by Price’s eight points, to close within 52-50 with 8:24 remaining.
Young, a senior playing his final home game, hit a driving layup through traffic to make it 54-50, then went above the rim to put down Levance Fields’ high lob pass—a dunk that drew the loudest roar of the game from the standing-room crowd of 12,908 and seemed to take the life out of UConn’s rally.
Price responded with another 3 but Jermaine Dixon drove the lane after a frustrated Thabeet, who twice couldn’t score from in close, swatted the ball downcourt in an attempt to maintain UConn’s possession.
After that, Young dunked again and added a free throw to finish off a three-point play created when Blair tapped the ball away in the backcourt to force a turnover, giving Pitt a 61-53 lead with 4:42 remaining.
Young was such a factor that at, one point, Blair went 18 minutes without scoring, yet Pitt still increased its lead from three points to 14. Young, stepping outside more in the second half, hit 3-pointers for successive Pitt baskets to make it 48-36 after UConn had scored six consecutive points to close what had been a 14-point deficit.
With Thabeet not scoring inside after halftime, UConn didn’t have enough to come back in its first loss in 10 road games this season despite Jeff Adrien’s 11 points and 10 from Kemba Walker.
Pitt reserve Brad Wanamaker scored 13 points and Fields, playing despite a bruised lower back, added 10 in 37 minutes although he missed 10 of 14 shots.
The Panthers finished 19-0 at home, the second time since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002 that it swept every home game.
Pitt hadn’t swept UConn during the season—the teams haven’t always met twice in a season—since 1996-97, when Pitt also beat the Huskies in the Big East tournament.
“We won both games, but we’re going to keep playing the same way, we’re not going to do anything different,” Blair said of a possible third UConn-Pitt game. “We’ll see them when we see them.”