Saturday, February 7, 2009

UConn Guts Out Victory Over Hot-Shooting Wolverines

Hasheem Thabeet continues to stake his claim as the national Defensive Player of the Year. On Saturday, Thabeet swatted Michigan players audacious enough to take the ball to the cup on the big fella like flies.

The 7-foot-3 mountain of a man registered six blocks and racked up another double-double, scoring 17 points and tearing down 12 boards, en route to UConn's 69-61 victory over the Wolverines at the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs.

This helped No.1 UConn stave off a hungry Michigan team that showed major poise in a hostile environment, to paraphrase U of M coach John Beilein.

Michigan sniper Stu Douglass, a freshman hailing from the Wild Wild West-like, shootist breeding grounds of Indiana, came to the game with a rifle. He scored a career-high 20 points to lead all scorers. Douglass, who entered the game averaging just five points, scorched the nets to the tune of six three-pointers.

Thabeet, the defending national Defensive Player of the Year, is a surefire bet to repeat the honor.

The junior has registered a whopping 88 blocks in 22 games this season. Thabeet, who was as offensively inept as they come when he arrived at UConn, has suddenly skyrocketed to stardom. Thabeet's name is littered all over NBA mock drafts. The once work-in-progress is now widely regarded as a potential top-five pick.

"The coaches told me not to be scared about getting into foul trouble so every time, I try to help and block it. I’m just trying to change the game," said Thabeet, he of the thick African drawl.

Thabeet said defensive communication was a recipe for success Saturday.

"Every time my teammate gets beat, I’m there to block the shot. And team defense, the way we talk to each other, they tell me ‘someone got beat, go over there and help.’ So, I go over there and block a shot. The team defense is getting way better. The more we talk, the better we play."

Jeff Adrien scored nine points and swallowed 14 boards, seven on the offensive end. The numbers tap him into an elite society. Adrien is now the sixth player in UConn history to reach the 1,000-point, 1,000-rebound milestone.

"Thabeet is a big story in this game obviously, but Adrien is just…I mean you can't block him out," said Beilein, the former West Virginia coach. Beilein was supplanted by Bobby Huggins in Morgantown, in the aftermath of the 2006-2007 season.

"He’s just on mission to get the ball. He just rebounds the ball. I still remember him (when I was coaching) at West Virginia when he was a freshman. We couldn’t stop him them. And now he’s dieseled-up even more."

Douglass shot 6-for-8 from beyond the arc. His quick-strike stroke helped Michigan seize a 29-21 advantage after they reeled off a 9-0 run with 3:48 to play in the first half. A section of maize and blue-clad Wolverine fans in the house suddenly erupted.

Thabeet thwarted the run with a pair of free throws.

Thatbeet's thunderous dunk chopped the deficit to 31-25 with under three minutes to go. A physical battle between two teams frompotent conferences made for a heart-racing, seesaw first half before a packed house of 10, 167 at the Gampel Pavilion.

Ray Allen, the former Huskies standout and newly minted All-Star guard for the Boston Celtics, was in attendance.

Manny Harris (17.7 ppg) and DeShawn Sims (15.1 ppg), the guard-forward tandem that put Michigan on the map after the Wolves' 81-73 upset of Duke back on Dec. 6, were missing in action.

Harris and Sims combined to shoot a paltry 9-for-27 from the floor.

The Wolverines were still willful, employing a never-say-die mentality. Back-to-back three-pointers from Harris and Douglass threatened the lead late in the game.

Craig Austrie, who's played for two No.1 ranked Husky teams during his stay at Storrs, answered the call.

The poised Austrie, who Red Sox-crazy coach Jim Calhoun refers to as UConn's "Papelbon," hit a three-point dagger, giving UConn a 64-56 edge with 56 seconds remaining.

That trifecta ruined Michigan's upset-bid.

The school playing with free money almost looked as if they were playing with house money in the early going, but UConn surged ahead with a 10-point lead they wouldn't squander in the second.

UConn has now rattled off 11 consecutive victories. Next stop: Syracuse.

UConn (22-1, 10-1) renews an old-school rivalry on Wednesday.

Jerome Dyson, who's apparently kicked the habit of taking a picture during wide-open set three-pointers, led the Huskies with 19 points.

Beyond Douglass, Harris paced Michigan with 15 points.