Commentary

Price check: UConn guard takes major step in road to recovery

Originally Published: December 20, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- For Gonzaga, it was yet another big loss so heartbreaking that alumnus Adam Morrison probably started crying again. For UConn, it was a victory so inspiring that coach Jim Calhoun felt he could fly home for the holidays sans airplane and, more importantly, senior guard A.J. Price felt as if he could do almost anything on the court.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Price
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireA.J. Price's 3-pointer sent the game into OT, where UConn pulled out a win against Gonzaga.
And for beleaguered Seattle fans, it was finally a chance to actually see an exciting game between two championship-level teams, with the one unfortunate caveat that neither was, you know, from Seattle.

No matter. No. 2 UConn's 88-83 overtime victory over No. 7 Gonzaga at the Sonics' former home -- the old logo on the court is awkwardly covered by a large sheet of adhesive plastic -- gave local fans reason to fill KeyArena despite repeated, strident media warnings of the worst Christmas storm since Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon Cornelius spent the holidays with the Abominable Snowman. The game was tied four times, the lead changed three times and there were moments when the 16,763 fans -- most screaming for Gonzaga -- were as loud as has been heard here since the glory days of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

"I was excited, my team was excited, their team was excited, the officials were excited," Calhoun said. "There's still one whistle I still don't know what it was for, but I guess everyone was excited."

Predicting deep snow, freezing rain and near-hurricane-force winds (but no frogs), forecasters warned Seattle fans to get home by early afternoon Saturday, but Price delayed everyone's departure by hitting a game-tying 3-pointer with 7.8 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime. Price led all scorers with 24 points in a game that destroyed the Zags but should leave UConn fans feeling much better about the guard's return from a devastating ACL injury in last year's NCAA tournament.

"With the ACL injury, it's a mental thing," Price said. "I think tonight, playing against such a great team, you don't have a chance to think about it. You have to just play. I just did what I know I can do. And it worked out for us."

Price has recovered physically from the injury, and Saturday's performance went a long way to completing his mental recovery. He had spent much of this season playing tentatively and worrying about what his knee could withstand.

"When you do something that devastating, you don't want to feel that pain again," he said. "Sometimes you just rely on your jump shot and I think that's what I was doing, relying on my jump shot too much. Everybody who has been with us the whole year can tell you I haven't gone to the basket like I did today. Today I was just relentless getting in the paint and trying to make plays."

Price said he would walk out of KeyArena with the confidence of old. "This helps you rid your mind of those problems you thought you had because it's obvious you don't have them. It's just a matter of playing the game the way you know how. This sets the bar for me for the rest of the year. I know how I can play and I just have to go out there and do it every game."

[+] EnlargeSteven Gray
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenSteven Gray led Gonzaga with 23 points in a losing effort.
While Price left the arena unworried about his knee, Gonzaga fans wandered into the snow wondering when the Zags and coach Mark Few will learn how to close out a game. In a game that could have gone a long way toward gaining a No. 1 seed, Gonzaga squandered an 11-point lead built in no small part on the hot hand of Steven Gray (team-high 23 points).

"It was do or die time," Price said. "We had to do something immediately or we were on our way to getting run out of the gym and beat by 15 or something."

The Zags still should have won the game when UConn's Craig Austrie missed a 3-point attempt with 16 seconds left, but Gonzaga failed to get the rebound. The ball kicked out to Price, who sank a difficult shot over guard Jeremy Pargo (16 points) despite being hit on the elbow as he released the ball.

The play was indicative of the little breakdowns that ultimately cost Gonzaga the game. "It was a tough, tough, tough game," Few said. "We needed one more rebound there and a stop. We got the stop but we just couldn't get the rebound."

Still, Gonzaga showed it can play with the best in another tough matchup between the two teams that have flourished since they met in the 1999 NCAA tournament

"They are a major-major basketball team. I don't want to hear anymore about them being a mid-major," Calhoun said. "We've played them what, four or five times, and every game has been tough."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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