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January 29, 2008
Rising in the (Big) East
Connecticut 69, Louisville 67

by Caleb Peiffer

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Result: Connecticut, 69-67 in 62 possessions

Seminal Play: With 3:06 remaining in the game and Connecticut's lead having slipped down to 65-61, Louisville sophomore point guard Edgar Sosa drove through the lane and attempted to finish a reverse layup on the opposite side of the basket from 7'2” center Hasheem Thabeet. The big man, who ranks 15th in the nation in block percentage, was able to reach back and swat the attempt into the hands of teammate Jeff Adrien. It was Thabeet's second block in as many possessions, and critically, both times the Huskies secured the ball.

Tale of Two Halves: The first period featured the inefficiency from both offenses that was expected in a game featuring two very strong defenses, as each squad scored below a point per trip. However, in the second half the offense picked up dramatically, with a very slow pace (31 possessions) serving to obscure the improved attack. Louisville had a 65 eFG% in the second half, with Connecticut at 56, after both teams were under 40 in the first half.

Quotable: “It's a chip shot, the three point shot in college basketball. If you're wide open and you don't take a chip shot, you're not a good basketball team. Some of my old teams would have picked that [Connecticut zone] apart with all the open shots, but unfortunately we're not the greatest shooting team in the world. You're not going to score a whole lot on the inside [against the Huskies].”
—Louisville coach Rick Pitino, on how his team shot 33 three-pointers while making only 11 against Connecticut, which thanks to its extreme height holds opponents to the second-lowest percentage on two-point attempts in Division I.

The Big Picture: The Huskies reeled off another strong win over a Pomeroy Top 20 opponent, their third in the last four games, and in the process proclaimed themselves among the elite of the Big East. Point guard A.J. Price definitively showed that he is the best player on the Huskies and can be one of the best guards in the nation.
“I couldn't ask for much more,” Price said. “I'm running the show, I'm the point guard at one of the biggest programs in the nation...everybody believing in me now, and everybody believing in each other. It feels great.”

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HARTFORD, Conn.--With Jerome Dyson again on the bench Saturday night, point guard A.J. Price took firm control of his team and the game to lead Connecticut past Louisville, 69-67, in a classic Big East battle at the XL Center.

Thanks primarily to the effort of Price, who scored a game-high 20 points and expertly directed the Huskies' ultra-efficient second-half attack, Connecticut (15-5, 5-3 Big East) survived a late run by Louisville (15-6, 5-3) and a potential game-winning three-point attempt from forward Juan Palacios in the final seconds. The Huskies won their fourth straight game, and second in a row against an opponent in the Pomeroy Top 20 without the services of Dyson, the team's leader in points per game who was suspended for a violation of team rules before Saturday's upset at Indiana.

“What I've found in coaching, the wounded tiger is much more dangerous,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of the undermanned Huskies. “For the next few games it's not going to hurt them at all—where it hurts you is over a span of time.”

After a first half in which both teams struggled to score that resulted in a 30-30 tie, the Huskies gradually exerted control out of the intermission. On three consecutive Connecticut possessions early in the second half, Price, a 6'2” junior, showcased his all-around abilities and sparked a big Huskies run. He stole the ball from Palacios and took it in for a layup, hit a long three from the corner—just the Huskies' second of the game to that point—and on the next Connecticut trip quickly streaked up the court, got into the lane, and found forward Jeff Adrien with a no-look pass for a 41-38 lead.

“A.J. Price is starting to prove that he's one of the best guards in the country,” Calhoun said of his team leader's performance, which included seven rebounds, four assists, and two steals. "You can see his manhood start developing, and [him] take responsibility for this team."

Another critical three-pointer from Price finished off a 9-2 Huskies run that gave Connecticut a 50-42 lead with 13:13 to play, its largest lead of the game to that point. The Huskies would extend their advantage to 10 before Louisville began chipping away in the last 10 minutes by utilizing the three-pointer. The Cardinals finally found the range from deep, and hit four threes in that span, including one by Terence Williams that re-tied the score at 61 with 5:28 to play. But it was Price again who came up with the critical hoop, driving for a layup on the next possession to gave Connecticut back the edge, which this time it would not relinquish.

The Cardinals were not done yet, however. A corner three by guard Jerry Smith off a good baseline feed from point guard Edgar Sosa cut Connecticut's lead to 69-67 with 36 seconds left. Louisville then came up with a great defensive play, as two defenders tied up guard Craig Austrie, giving the ball back to the Cardinals with 21 seconds remaining.

At this crucial moment, Connecticut tightened its exploitable perimeter defense. Adrien fought through a screen and got a hand up in the face of Palacios, who was forced to fire slightly off-balance from the top of the arc. His shot glanced off the right iron and into the hands of Austrie, who dribbled out the last three seconds before Louisville could foul, then threw the ball high in the air after the buzzer sounded over the noise of 15,000 approving fans.

“Some nights [the three is] never there—against this team it's always there, because they just take away the interior with their shot blocking,” Pitino said of the Huskies defense. “As long as you have the ball movement and player movement, it's fine. We only took two challenged [threes] the whole game, [including the shot of] Palacios at the end of the game.”

Despite all those open looks, the Cardinals knocked down only 11-of-33 from long range, including 5-of-20 in the first half. Louisville kept jacking it up from deep, though, because it was able to get very little inside against the Huskies, whose weakness on defense lies in the fact that they allow opponents to shoot 38% from long range.

Predictably, Connecticut used its size inside to command the boards and score repeatedly down low. The Huskies out-rebounded Louisville 40-29, and the Cardinals could not match the interior strength of 6'9” forwards Adrien and Stanley Robinson, who each grabbed a game-high 10 boards and combined for 28 points.

Connecticut scored 30 points in the paint to Louisville's 16, although the Cardinals' senior center David Padgett did do some admirable work on the block against 7'2” shot-blocking monster Hasheem Thabeet. Padgett schooled the sophomore on several occasions with his assortment of low-post moves, and shot 5-of-7 from the floor for 12 points, seven of which came in the stretch run that brought the Cardinals within a basket of the victory.

The win moves the Huskies into a tie with Louisville for second place in the Big East, one and a half games behind Georgetown. Connecticut, which appears to have turned the corner towards becoming a very dangerous team following its bad home loss to Providence five games ago, will look to keep rolling against Pittsburgh on Saturday at the XL Center.

"This team is coming together as a unit right now. We're playing extremely good team basketball," Price said. "Everybody's moving the ball, just sharing it. It's fun to play that way."

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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