Price is right for Connecticut
MILWAUKEE -- A.J. Price knows he's already a nice story, a triumph-over-adversity tale that finds a soft spot among college basketball fans.
The senior guard nearly died from a brain hemorrhage before he played a college game, and he underwent ACL surgery last March. He threw a season away after being involved in the theft of four laptop computers. He didn't live up to above-the-rim expectations when he arrived at Connecticut as a heralded recruit.
And here he is, leading UConn to another No. 1 ranking this season, eyeing a Big East championship and possibly more.
"I've done a lot to restore my character over the last three years," Price said. "Everyone pretty much knows what type of man I am."
Price can take pride in what he's achieved thus far. But when Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun starts throwing out names like Ben Gordon and Richard Hamilton, as he did after Wednesday night's 93-82 win against No. 10 Marquette, Price knows his legacy is incomplete.
"If I want to be mentioned with guys like Rip," he said, "I've got to take this team somewhere special, and that's the Final Four."
He took a big step toward Detroit on Wednesday, delivering the finest performance of his career when his team needed a boost.
Nine days earlier, the Huskies had been humbled at home by Pitt, losing the No. 1 ranking in their second game without Jerome Dyson and raising questions about their viability in the backcourt (the junior guard is out for the rest of the season and postseason after knee surgery). Then, UConn came off a diluted victory Saturday against South Florida that featured more passion from Calhoun in the postgame news conference than from any of the players on the court.
Connecticut had been unflappable on the road, but Marquette boasted a 17-game win streak at the Bradley Center, and Dyson is and .
"I keep telling the kids every single day, 'Were not the same, but it doesn't mean we can't be as good,'" Calhoun said. "We just have to be different."
Price was certainly different against the Golden Eagles, notching career-highs in points (36) and 3-pointers made (8) and chipping in six assists and six rebounds. In a game of major spurts by both teams, he had an answer every time.
The knockout came on a 3-pointer with 1:12 left.
"It's very special," Price said. "This game is going to go down in history."
Calhoun became just the seventh Division I coach to notch 800 victories, claiming 552 in 23 seasons at Connecticut. After reaching the milestone, he recalled the advice his father used to offer when he ran with the wrong crowd growing up in Dorchester, Mass., and south Boston.
"He said, 'You're always going to be judged by the company you keep,'" Calhoun said. "I looked around at that list, and I'm really happy to be in that company."
Price joined some elite company, as well.
His eight 3-pointers matched Ray Allen for the second-most in a game in school history. His 36 points marked the most by a Connecticut player in a Big East game since Hamilton scored 39 against Boston College in January 1999.
Despite shooting just 27 percent (10-of-37) in his previous three games, Price quickly showed that this night would be different.
"As soon as he made his first 3," reserve guard Scottie Haralson said, "I could tell he was going to be on the rest of the game."
Marquette, evidently, wasn't as convinced. Though the Golden Eagles had to play all but four minutes without senior point guard Dominic James, whose college career is over after he broke a bone in his left foot early in the first half, they remain stocked with guards.
But none of them could stop Price, who continued to find room off of ball screens.
"I actually felt disrespected," Price said. "They continued to go under [the screen] time and time again, even after I got off to a good start."
Price shouldn't expect the same neglect from UConn's upcoming opponents. With Dyson out for the season, Price will be a marked man the rest of the way.
He also could be peaking at the perfect time. Calhoun said Price, who underwent knee surgery on March 28, would take two full years to fully recover.
The 6-foot-2 senior might be well ahead of schedule.
"Tonight, I felt like my old self," Price said, "back to the high school days where I was pretty much just playing basketball, just having fun and doing what I wanted to do on the court."
Price contributed 20 points after halftime, but he got help from forward Stanley Robinson, who recorded his first double-double of the season (19 points, 10 rebounds).
Nicknamed "Sticks" because of his skinny legs, Robinson fattened up around the rim, converting two 3-point plays to cap the game's decisive 11-0 run.
"It's about being aggressive for me," Robinson said. "It's getting to the defensive boards and the offensive boards. As long as I get to the offensive boards, my offense is going to come."
The Huskies' performance delighted Calhoun, who was anything but chipper on Saturday when a freelance journalist confronted him about his salary after a win over South Florida. Calhoun's subsequent outburst drew reproach from Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who called the situation an "embarrassing display."
In a brief statement to reporters outside the Bradley Center media room, Calhoun said only that he spoke to Rell earlier in the day and they had a nice conversation.
The Hall of Famer was much more forthcoming when discussing his players.
"Any day that I sat down on a kid and didn't really push them, and then loved them as much as I possibly could and backed them, then I'm not really doing my job," he said. "That's the only way they're going to give you the type of performance they gave me tonight. That's the only way.
"Because they feel [for] you, just like you feel something for them."
Price gave Calhoun his 800th win, further cementing the coach's legacy among the all-time greats. But Price knows his own legacy among Connecticut's greatest guards will be determined in the coming weeks.
"I want to be remembered as a winner, as a champion," Price said. "I'm trying to bring something home to Storrs. If I'm able to do that, enough said."Adam Rittenberg covers college basketball and football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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