Gay, Pitt show what they're made of
STORRS, Conn. -- There are two stories here that deserve telling.
You can argue which two all you want. But walk away from top-ranked Connecticut's gut-check 80-76 victory over No. 9 Pittsburgh on Tuesday night and you are left with two overriding thoughts:
UConn's Rudy Gay was Rudy Gay, the player who was hyped as a preseason potential top pick and a possible player of the year.
And Pittsburgh's relentlessness, its toughness and its overall will to win is unparalleled game in and game out, matched maybe only by Duke this season.
Gay was terrific. He soared through the air for transition dunks that are highlight material for years to come (the one-handed windmill flush on the break). But, better yet, he took over the game when needed with his scoring (10 of the first 14 points). He finished with 22 points, making 9-of-16 shots. Yes, he took the most shots, something that has been implored of him by the staff at times. He came up with four key steals and a block. Sure, he didn't rebound as well (three) but he was the standout guy on a team that has had a rotation in the spotlight all season.
"I would say so," Gay said of agreeing that this was his most complete game of the season. "I felt like I could be the player I could be [Tuesday night]."
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said Gay made the tough plays down the stretch, something he would need to do for them throughout the course of the season. The Panther players were just as complimentary, almost expecting that Gay would play this way. Still, according to the UConn staff, Gay hasn't played this well since scoring 28 points, going 11-of-19 and picking up four steals in a Maui Invitational quarterfinal win over Arkansas -- in late November.
"He was more aggressive," UConn senior guard Rashad Anderson said. "Other than that Arkansas game this was his best."
Gay showed toughness Tuesday, something that hasn't always been apparent. But so did the entire Huskies team against arguably the toughest squad in the country. UConn didn't need Ed Nelson to be its only brute on the court. The Huskies held their own.
Calhoun said he felt wonderful about the Huskies' character and toughness. He should.
How tough is it to play against Pitt?
Consider this: Pitt shot 2-of-20 on 3s, was outrebounded 40-29, had four players in foul trouble -- including two foul-outs in senior point Carl Krauser (2:58 left) and junior forward Levon Kendall (51 seconds left) -- and yet the Panthers were still one possession away from winning the game in the final minute.
"We're winners and we hate to lose, we don't know how to lose," Pitt junior center Aaron Gray said. "Coach [Jamie] Dixon is our leader and it starts with him. We never stop. We were down nine at halftime and we came out and got the first bucket. We never thought we were going to lose until that last buzzer went off."
So, what are teams in the NCAA Tournament going to have to deal with that haven't seen Pitt?
"You have to absorb their physicality because they hit you every play like the old Army teams," UConn assistant coach George Blaney said. "They just bump you all the time. They push you out, out of your offensive area.
"It wears you down and you stop coming off screens tight," Blaney said. "They're always a hard team to play. They hang in there for full possessions."
What about the players? What would their advice be for any team that has to play Pitt?
"You're in trouble," Anderson said. "They grind their offense, run their offense down, don't take bad shots. They always take good shots."
"Whoever plays them is in for a tough game no matter what," Gay said. "Carl Krauser is one of the toughest players you'll play against. It's crazy. This is the team that you want to play but after you're done, you're like, woo."
Gray, Krauser, Kendall, John DeGroat, Sam Young (this player is going to be a stud for years to come), Levance Fields, Tyrell Biggs, Antonio Graves and Keith Benjamin are all rocks when it comes to holding their ground.
The Panthers have the goods to go along way because of their grit. Connecticut has always known it could win the title as long as Gay is, well, the Gay that everyone projected.
Sure, forward Josh Boone had a solid game for the Huskies (16 points, seven boards and three blocks), but the Huskies needed Gay more than anyone else.
UConn-Pitt hasn't disappointed in years. This has been the game in the Big East schedule. They are more than rivals and have become the definition of the new Big East, making it seem like, as Calhoun said, the '80s again. Unfortunately, because of the unbalanced schedule, this was the only meeting this season. Don't be surprised if they meet again in March or even April.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.