HARTFORD, Conn. (AP)—Connecticut’s current winning streak looks a lot like the ones the Huskies used to go on when they were among the nation’s top teams season after season.
The 60-53 victory over No. 18 Pittsburgh on Saturday was Connecticut’s fifth straight and third in that span over a ranked team. The midseason run has moved the Huskies into third place in the Big East and back into the national picture with a possible Top 25 berth in the near future.
“The teams we’re playing are pretty good, people have to notice that,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said, referring to the wins over Marquette and Indiana.
A.J. Price has been the Huskies’ best player during the winning streak and he was again against the Panthers, scoring 21 points and running the offense with five assists.
“I’m impressed, I should be. It is impressive what we’re doing right now,” Price said of the winning streak, during which he has averaged almost 20 points, six assists and five rebounds. “We haven’t played at our peak but we have shown you how good we can be and as the season goes on we’ll get better and go from there.”
The latest win was an old-fashioned Big East brawl that wasn’t decided until the final minutes. It wasn’t an artistic masterpiece but that’s fine with Calhoun.
“You have to watch the tape of that in black and white. That was the Big East I was weaned on—put on the gloves, 12 rounds, last man standing,” he said. “That was a tough, physical basketball game.”
Craig Austrie’s 3-pointer with 2:03 to play gave Connecticut (16-5, 6-3) a 54-51 lead. After Gilbert Brown made two of three free throws for the Panthers (17-5, 5-4) with 1:42 to go, Price scored on a drive with 1:09 left and then added two free throws with 37 seconds left for a 58-53 lead.
Sam Young, who led the Panthers with 18 points, missed a 3-point attempt and Jeff Adrien closed the scoring with two free throws with 25 seconds to go.
Price made the pass to Austrie for the tiebreaking 3, something the two have been working on every day in practice.
“He is so enjoyable to play with,” Price said of Austrie.
Calhoun said Austrie, a junior, has always been “the other guy” in the Connecticut backcourt.
“He wasn’t the other guy tonight. He stepped up,” Calhoun said.
This was Connecticut’s third straight win since Calhoun suspended guards Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins after they were caught with alcohol on campus. Wiggins, a sophomore reserve, returned against Pittsburgh and had two points in 11 minutes. Dyson, the Huskies’ co-leading scorer with Price at 14.3 per game, remains on indefinite suspension.
“The last eight days have felt like 800,” Calhoun said, referring to the day the original suspension were handed out. “The kids have taken the chance to do something special. They’re listening.”
Wiggins said he learned a lot from the suspension.
“It won’t happen again,” he said. “I’m happy to be on my team. That’s all I’m really worried about right now. I messed up and I’m glad to be on my team and have another chance.”
Adrien added 14 points for the Huskies and Austrie had 13, including three of Connecticut’s four 3-pointers.
Freshman DeJuan Blair had 13 points and 13 rebounds, nine offensive, for the Panthers.
“We fought hard, but they just came on at the end,” Blair said. “They did an excellent job at the end of the clock on executing plays, going to the hoop and finding the shots. And that’s what they did, they made shots and we didn’t.”
The pace of the game seemed to be to Pittsburgh’s liking with the first half finishing at a 22-22 tie.
Connecticut was never able to get the game into an open court and the Panthers were right there despite shooting 32.2 percent (19-for-59), including 2-for-16 from 3-point range. Pittsburgh came into the game third in the Big East in shooting at 46.6 percent, but even the big edge on the offensive boards wasn’t enough.
Connecticut came into the game second in the conference to Georgetown and 10th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (37.7), and the Huskies were able to get a hand in most of the shooters’ faces—especially on 3-point attempts.
“We got some good looks, especially in the second half when our execution was better,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “We had our opportunities, we just didn’t get it done at the end.”
On a 3-point attempt by Ronald Ramon with just under a minute to play, Austrie was able to go right at him and Price was able to come down with the rebound in traffic.
“They played pretty good defense, especially not allowing us to get a lot of layups,” Young said. “Every time we kind of crept back into it, they hit a big shot to knock us down.”
The Panthers are 6-4 without injured starters Levance Fields and Mike Cook.
“At the end it was a tie game with two minutes left,” Dixon said. “We have to make the plays. It comes down to getting a stop and we didn’t get the stop.”