Thabeet powers UConn past Purdue

Friday, March 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:39 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 27, 2009
Hasheem Thabeet, center, a 7-foot-3 junior from Tanzania, scored 15 points and had 15 rebounds to help Connecticut defeat Purdue 72-60 in the semifinal of the NCAA West regional in Glendale, Ariz. The Huskies meet Missouri in the reional final Saturday.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Every once in a while, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun urges Hasheem Thabeet to do more.

That's asking a lot, because the 7-foot-3 Thabeet is one of the nation's top players.

Saturday's Elite Eight game

Missouri (31-6)
vs. Connecticut (30-4)

WHEN: 3:40 p.m.

WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale Ariz.

TV: KRCG/Channel 13

RADIO: KFRU/1400, KBXR/102.3 FM

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"We have been on him a little bit," Calhoun said. "I have been telling him that: you are a great player, an All-American, and you have to play like an All-American."

Thabeet, the Big East co-player of the year, scored 15 points and had 15 rebounds, and top-seeded Connecticut overcame a sluggish first half to defeat Purdue 72-60 in the NCAA West Regional semifinals on Thursday.

Thabeet also blocked four shots and helped disrupt the Boilermakers' offense.

"He has played well for us, but today he was special, and he made the lane a place nobody wanted to go," Calhoun said.

Craig Austrie scored 17 points, and Stanley Robinson had 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Huskies (30-4), who advanced to the regional final against third-seeded Missouri.

It was Thabeet's 18th double-double of the season, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Huskies. They needed some good news after a Yahoo! Sports report alleged UConn committed NCAA recruiting violations.

Calhoun said he had a "fruitful" phone conversation with UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway on Thursday morning but wouldn't go into details.

"He said, 'Go get Purdue,'" Calhoun said.

That's what the Huskies did.

UConn jumped out to an early 11-point lead, then went cold and let the fifth-seeded Boilermakers (27-10) claw back into the game.

The first half looked like it belonged in a Thanksgiving tournament, not the third round of the NCAAs.

UConn shot only 39.4 percent from the floor, but it led by five points at intermission because Purdue was even worse (33.3 percent).

"I wish we would have played better," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "I wish we would have shot the ball better. But this wasn't one of UConn's better games also."

No one was colder than UConn's Jeff Adrien, who was 1-for-9 from the floor and missed his only free throw.

The Huskies had won their first two NCAA tournament games by an average of 41 points, but it was obvious they were in for a fight against the defense-oriented Boilermakers. The Boilermakers trailed 30-25 at halftime, but they ran off the court to the cheers of their black-and-gold-clad followers.

Thabeet said at halftime his teammates told him to step it up.

"They know I'm capable of doing a lot of stuff," said Thabeet, a junior from Tanzania. "Today, the second half, they told me to go back there and do what you do all season long."

Thabeet did exactly that. He scored Connecticut's first eight points of the second half, then blocked a shot to set up a fastbreak layup by A.J. Price, who scored 10 of his 15 points after halftime.

That play was part of an 8-0 run that gave the Huskies a 42-31 cushion with 13:37 to play.

What's more, it told the Boilermakers that they were overmatched in the middle.

But it took Purdue a while to get the message. The Boilermakers answered with a 7-0 burst, and soon they had pulled within 44-40 with 11:24 to play.

"We tried to put them away three, four, five different times, and every time they came back," Price said.

But Thabeet dunked to push the lead back to 57-45 with 6:28 to play, and that was pretty much it for Purdue.

Purdue ended its longest NCAA run since 2000, when the Boilermakers lost to Wisconsin in the regional final.

"We did accomplish a lot this season," said Robbie Hummel, who led Purdue with 17 points. "We've been in the Sweet 16 now. We're going to be hungry to make it farther next year."

The Huskies, meanwhile, are still chasing their third national title.

UConn arrived in the Phoenix area full of confidence. The road to both of the Huskies' NCAA titles — in 1999 and 2004 — went through regionals in Phoenix.

Technically, this regional is in Glendale, to the west of Phoenix. But so far it has the same warm feeling for the Huskies, who are one win away from another Final Four.

"The opportunity to play Saturday — now you are playing for something even more special," Calhoun said.


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