Connecticut was rolling along as the nation’s No. 1 team until falling to another top 5 squad in its latest game. The Huskies hope to get back on track Saturday when they face South Florida, a team that nearly knocked them off last year.
The top-ranked Huskies look to bounce back from their first loss since late December when they face the struggling Bulls, whom they’ve never lost to in six meetings, at Hartford’s XL Center.
UConn (24-2, 12-2) dropped its first Big East game at home to Georgetown on Dec. 29, then ran off 13 straight wins - including a non-conference victory over Michigan - by an average of 14.6 points. The top team in perhaps the nation’s toughest conference didn’t win by fewer than six points in that stretch.
Prior to its showdown with No. 4 Pittsburgh on Monday, though, UConn found out it would be without guard Jerome Dyson - second on the team at 13.2 points per game - for the rest of the season due to a knee injury.
The Huskies could have used Dyson against the Panthers. Only A.J. Price, who finished with 18 points and eight assists, scored consistently for them, and center Hasheem Thabeet was dominated inside by Pitt’s DeJuan Blair as the Panthers won 76-68 at the XL Center.
Blair finished with 22 points and 23 rebounds and helped Pitt outrebound UConn 48-31 - the first time in 33 regular-season games that the Huskies lost the battle of the boards.
The Panthers proved to be the much more physical team in winning a typically rough-and-tumble Big East game.
“We haven’t played in that sort of game since the early 2000s, the 1990s,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “That was what was going to be allowed tonight and Pittsburgh played that way. … We were in a foreign land a bit. I’m very proud of the 13-game winning streak and hopefully we’ll get back to boxing out.”
Thabeet had looked unstoppable prior to Monday’s loss, averaging 15.8 points, 14.0 rebounds and 7.2 blocks in his previous five games, but he was limited to five points, four boards and two blocks before fouling out against Pitt. Blair appeared to have little trouble pushing around the 7-foot-3, 263-pound center.
“I’ve played a lot of big guys who tried to come at me,” Thabeet said. “Today I didn’t have a good game. (Blair) took advantage of that, and they ended up getting the win.”
South Florida (8-17, 3-10) has lost three straight since a 57-56 home victory over then-No. 8 Marquette on Feb. 6.
The Bulls’ latest defeat was especially ugly. They shot 27.3 percent in the first half while falling behind Georgetown 34-17 on Wednesday, going on to lose 65-40 at Tampa.
“There is no way to sugarcoat this one - we just got it handed to us,” coach Stan Heath said. “It is about as poorly as we’ve played all year long, it was low on the totem pole. It was inexcusable some of the things that I thought were happening – our inability to make a free throw, finish a layup.”
South Florida hasn’t been hitting much of anything recently. The Bulls are shooting 36.5 percent from the floor and 20.4 from 3-point range during their three-game skid.
South Florida, though, nearly beat UConn for the first time last Feb. 16 at Tampa, but Price had 23 points and seven assists as the then-No. 17 Huskies escaped with a 74-73 overtime win.
Dominique Jones scored 16 points for the Bulls in that game. The sophomore guard is averaging a team-high 18.2 points, but he’s averaged 13.0 on 31.4 percent from the field in his last two games.