It's the Pitts being No. 1
HARTFORD, Conn. — It wasn't just a game between No. 1 and No. 4. It was a game between two of the Big East's most physical teams. And it was played just the way it was expected to be.
"That was the most physical game I ever played in my entire life," DeJuan Blair after getting 22 points and 23 rebounds in No. 4 Pittsburgh's 76-68 victory over No. 1 Connecticut on Monday night, the Panthers' first win over a top-ranked team. "There were elbows flying, bodies flying. We just went after each other the whole game."
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun referred to the games played in the conference over a decade ago.
"The Big East games in the 90s were like this," he said after having his team's 13-game winning streak stopped. "They came in here and played a style of basketball we haven't seen this year and it was effective against us. ... They made big plays and we didn't. It was a hell of a basketball game."
The biggest of those plays were 3-pointers from Levance Fields, who scored all 10 of his points in the final 3:09. His first 3 gave the Panthers (24-2, 11-2) the lead for good at 64-61 with 3:09 left. His second 3 with 2:21 left made it 67-61, and he added four free throws in the final minute.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon kidded around that if he knew Fields had missed his first eight shots, he might not have called plays for him.
Those misses didn't faze Fields, a senior point guard who leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.
"I think every shot I take is going in so it didn't matter how many I had missed," he said. "It didn't matter that I missed the first eight, I got the biggest two."
A.J. Price had 18 points for the Huskies (24-2, 12-2), who started their third week at No. 1 earlier Monday.
Sam Young had 25 points for Pittsburgh, which lost all 13 games it had played against No. 1 teams, the last three against Connecticut over the last 11 years.
The game was expected to be physical down low and it was with the 6-foot-7 Blair flipping 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet over his back in the first half, sending him to the bench for about 4 minutes. Blair got a dose back in the second half when he had to leave the game for almost 3 minutes after taking an elbow to the face.
"It seemed like a typical game to us, big bodies, good players, playing hard on a national stage," Dixon said. "It didn't seem too much of a change for us."
Calhoun felt it was quite a change for his team.
"We haven't played in that sort of game since the early 2000s, the 1990s," he said. "That was what was going to be allowed tonight and Pittsburgh played that way. They outrebounded us and we left a man open on two big plays. We were in a foreign land a bit. I'm very proud of the 13-game wining streak and hopefully we'll get back to boxing out."
Thabeet, coming off a 25-point, 20-rebound, nine-block effort against Seton Hall, finished with five points on 1-for-5 shooting and had four rebounds and two blocks.
"We played Pittsburgh before and it's always a battle," Thabeet said. "I'm glad we get to play them again. We just couldn't hang in there."
The teams meet again on March 7 in Pittsburgh and there could be another matchup in the Big East tournament.
Pitt took a 36-33 halftime lead behind Blair's 15 points and 13 rebounds and Young's 12 points.
Connecticut, which leads the Big East in scoring defense (60.5) and field goal percentage defense (37.3) held Pittsburgh to 7-of-25 shooting and led 56-51.
The minutes leading up to Fields' big shots were as intense as college basketball gets. The lead changed hands four times and there was a tie in the 21/2; minutes leading up to those shots.
Both his 3-pointers were wide-open shots when Connecticut couldn't switch fast enough on screens, and they seemed to take the wind out of the Huskies, who came up empty on both possessions around the 3s.
"I thought we were taking good shots and I said we would hit some shots down the stretch and Levance did," Dixon said. "He's hit big shots his whole career at Pitt and those were among the biggest."
Pittsburgh finished with a 48-31 rebound advantage, the first time the Huskies were outrebounded this season.
Connecticut fell to 40-8 as a No. 1 team and the loss kept them from the best start in school history. The Huskies remain tied with the 1995-96 team at 24-1.