Calhoun didn’t win two national championships, get elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and win 798 games in his career without being tough. In fact, it’s safe to say he loves proving to the rest of the Big East — year in and year out — that he is the toughest guy in the conference.
The best way to do that is by winning the Big East regular season championship and Calhoun understands that formula. The driver’s seat in that race, along with several other prizes, was on the line Monday night at the XL Center. Calhoun’s team came in with a 13-game winning streak and for the past two weeks the UConn coach had been singing the praises of center Hasheem Thabeet, who was slowly evolving into the most dominant force in college basketball.
But Pittsburgh, the team that has become the biggest and most aggressive threat to UConn this decade, took those things away from the Huskies. The winning streak is gone. The No. 1 ranking will be gone next Monday. And the Panthers now hold the upper hand in the Big East regular-season race, even though the two teams meet again March 7 in Pittsburgh.
More importantly, Pitt big man DeJuan Blair found a way to take Thabeet out of a game. Pitt made UConn’s 7-foot-3 shot blocker look rather ordinary again. Thabeet finished with five points, four rebounds, two blocks and three turnovers in 23 minutes. The past two weeks proved that Thabeet is the player who sets UConn apart. No one else has a Thabeet and when the game is officiated in his favor, the Huskies are tough to beat.
Even though the Huskies mounted an impressive comeback and took a five-point lead after Thabeet went to the bench with his fourth foul, the bottom line was that another team came into UConn’s building (in this case its bigger and louder home-away-from-home) and forced the Huskies to be uncomfortable.
Calhoun would never admit another team played tougher than his Huskies, but rebounding is an example of toughness and Pitt became the first team to grab more (48-31) against UConn in 33 regular season games. Calhoun said he doesn’t care about stats. But all the elements at work against Calhoun prompted a postgame press conference about how “different” the game was.
“We haven’t played in that kind of basketball game,” Calhoun said. “Pittsburgh won the game and I congratulate them on a terrific job. But when you get caught in a game, whatever it may be, you have to adjust."
When asked what was different, Calhoun told reporters to write what they saw. He said if they didn’t understand then they should be off covering tennis. But there was no mad rush in the press room to order credentials for Wimbledon.
What Calhoun was trying to get across was that he didn’t like the way the game was officiated. He was particularly unhappy with Mike Kitts, the official who called the fourth foul on Thabeet with 11:20 left in the game. Kitts blew his whistle for a push, an offensive foul that sent the big man to the bench until 5:44 remaining.
Calhoun made a big deal about the game being “different” and he would have been even madder if he had heard Pitt coach Jamie Dixon’s comments.
Pitt took the action right to Thabeet.
“That’s what we do at Pitt,” Dixon said. “We’ve done it year after year. We’re not going to change here in the middle of February. I think we were fortunate to get some fouls on Thabeet. That changed some things.
“And fortunately DeJuan was the one big man who stayed out of foul trouble.”
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