Blair flips script on Thabeet, UConn
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Hasheem Thabeet scared away shots for most of this season. Not just blocked or altered the arc of the ball, but prevented attempts from ever being taken.
Forget about the missed opportunities to score by Providence, Seton Hall, Michigan and Syracuse of late. Thabeet's 7-foot-3 towering presence -- and that's before he raises his arms up high -- was frightful for some.[+] EnlargeElsa/Getty ImagesUConn had no answer to DeJuan Blair's 22 points and 23 rebounds.
Pitt's DeJuan Blair saw it, too. He took time this past week to watch Connecticut on tape. Blair witnessed time and again how teams weren't going into Thabeet's chest, trying to knock him off balance.
"I did a little research and if you go against a shot-blocker, you've got to body him up and get him off balance so he can't jump,'' Blair said. "The only time he blocked my shot I was fading away and I got the ball right back and went right into his chest and got the and-one.''
Blair said he saw that Thabeet also will give opposing players room, and that's when he decided to go right at him, body him up and go "power, power, power and jump and use the rim, too.''
The truth is that none of the teams UConn played of late had anyone close to Blair's size, strength and determination.
Blair bullied Thabeet for 22 points and 23 rebounds in the most dominating performance against the UConn junior this season, as No. 4 Pitt knocked off the top-ranked Huskies 76-68 on Monday night at the XL Center. The Huskies are now 1-1 without starting shooting guard Jerome Dyson, who suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee last Wednesday against Syracuse. He had surgery Monday and is out for the season.
The win evened Pitt, UConn, Marquette and Louisville with two losses each atop the Big East standings. On paper, the league race favors Pitt with home games remaining against Marquette and Connecticut, while the Huskies go to Marquette and Pitt. Louisville, which beat the Panthers back on Jan. 17, still has to lose at least one more game for Pitt to win the league, and that could come at Cincinnati, Georgetown or West Virginia -- not to mention a home game against Marquette.
Amazingly, this was UConn's first loss since the calendar turned to 2009. The Huskies hadn't lost since Georgetown won in the Big East opener in this same building back on Dec. 29, 2008, 13 games ago.[+] EnlargeElsa/Getty ImagesCoach Jamie Dixon saw Pitt improve to 1-13 against top-ranked teams.
"I don't know, I don't know how it happened so fast,'' Connecticut senior Jeff Adrien said of the Huskies' losing a five-point lead with seven minutes left. "We didn't execute, they got the lead and we didn't score. It happens and I look forward to playing them again. It was a fun game.''
Thabeet said he looks forward to another challenge against Pitt, saying he can't wait for the rematch on March 7 in Pennsylvania. Blair said the same thing, adding, "I want to play against them again. I want to play tomorrow. It's going to be fun at home, the last game, senior night, we can get another win at home.''
Another performance like Monday night's and the Big East Player of the Year trophy may get diverted to Pittsburgh from Storrs.
If you have watched any of Blair's games this season, you know he's not afraid. Even if he was, he'd just laugh it off. Blair has the best and most infectious smile in the game and there's no way he would let anyone know his fears.
No need to worry about that now. He proved to himself, to Connecticut, to the Big East, to North Carolina and to Oklahoma if any of them were watching, and certainly to the NBA personnel in attendance, that he can handle any tall(er) task.
The 6-7 sophomore literally took Thabeet down early in the game on a rebound when he flipped him over his shoulder. Thabeet said his left shoulder was in pain. He iced it and said he would still be able to play in the Huskies' next game against South Florida on Saturday. Thabeet, who said he didn't play his best, picked up four fouls (with the fourth an incredibly questionable call by official Mike Kitts when Thabeet and Blair bumped into each other when Blair was running down the court). Thabeet played only 23 minutes and was never able to dominate the game, posting only five points, four boards and two blocks after he had averaged 16.5 points, 18 boards and eight blocks in UConn's two previous games.
Blair was hardly alone in leading the way for Pitt. He had senior Sam Young (25 points) to play off.Elsa/Getty ImagesLevance Fields eventually caused problems for UConn at both ends of the floor.
"I wasn't going to allow him to rearrange my shot unless I got a foul out of it,'' Young said of Thabeet. "I think the intimidation was gone after he got flipped over DeJuan's back.''
Pitt's balance showed even more when the power game was replaced late by the perimeter shooting. Jermaine Dixon hit a 3-pointer and then senior point guard Levance Fields, who had waited until the final three minutes to make his first field goal of the game, hit a 3-pointer, then followed it up with another trey on the next possession to take a 61-61 game and make it to a six-point lead that Pitt wouldn't relinquish.
Fields had missed his first eight shots. But for Fields it's never about how much he scores, it's always about when. He beat Duke last season in Madison Square Garden with a big shot. He essentially silenced UConn with a pair of 3s Monday. Young said Fields' nickname is "big shot.'' That's hard to argue.
Why does Fields relish those late-game shots?
"I don't care if I miss the shot,'' Fields said. "When the game is on the line, I'm thinking about the shot going in. I'm fully capable of making it and I'm confident being in those situations.''
So, too, is Pitt, a former No. 1 team that proved it's capable and worthy of being No. 1 again this season.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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