HARTFORD, Conn. (AP)—Foul trouble kept Hilton Armstrong on the bench for Connecticut for half the game. His confidence got him back in.
“He said, `Put me back in. I’m going to score on anybody they put on me,”’ UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.
It turned out to be the right move.
Armstrong scored six of his 11 points in the final four minutes to help UConn rally from 14 points down and beat LSU 67-66 on Saturday.
“Hilton Armstrong had the loudest 11 points I think I’ve ever seen,” Calhoun said.
Playing with four fouls, Armstrong came through down the stretch for the second-ranked Huskies (12-1) against the young and physical Tigers (8-5). His dunk with 3:28 left put UConn ahead 61-59, the Huskies’ first lead since the 17:45 mark in the first half. But LSU tied it on Tyrus Thomas’ bucket on the next possession.
The Huskies leaned on the 6-foot-11 Armstrong again, who scored inside and gave UConn the lead for good. He followed it up with a soft hook on the Huskies’ next possession for a 65-61 lead. Calhoun was calling for Armstrong over the final few plays.
“It has a lot to do with confidence. If I get the ball under the rim … I just go up strong,” Armstrong said. “That means a lot to me to feel like (Calhoun) has confidence in me. He should, because I’m going to step up for him.”
Armstrong also had four of the team’s 11 blocked shots. The teams combined for 21 blocked shots in the heavyweight duel. Thomas had a career-high seven blocks for the Tigers.
After the teams traded baskets, Darrel Mitchell, who led the Tigers with 21 points, hit two of three free throws with 9.4 seconds left and the Huskies’ lead was 67-66.
Marcus Williams then missed both free throws on the next UConn possession, but Mitchell’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer banged off the backboard.
“I thought the shot Darrel Mitchell got from a foot behind the arc was as good as we were going to get on the fly,” LSU coach John Brady said. “They beat us but I think our team went toe to toe. There were times in the second half that we had four freshman on the floor.”
Rudy Gay finished with 19 points for UConn and Rashad Anderson scored 10 and had a team-high 10 rebounds as the Huskies bounced back from a 15-point loss at Marquette on Tuesday. In that loss they shot just 17 of 34 from the line. They improved dramatically against the Tigers, making 20 of 25 free throws. They struggled from the floor, however, and made 22 of 67 attempts for 33 percent.
“We couldn’t buy a basket, mainly because LSU played very good defense,” Calhoun said. “I thought we gutted it out. We found other ways to win games than making 3-pointers or getting fast breaks.”
Thomas finished with 15 points and 13 boards for the Tigers. Glen Davis, LSU’s bruising 310-pound forward, and Tasmin Mitchell each had 12 points.
The Huskies had their hands full early with the 6-9 Davis in the paint. He drew a crowd each time he touched the ball, and although he had just four points in the first half, he had three assists. Garrett Temple and Thomas scored consecutive baskets inside each from a Davis assist to push the LSU lead to 29-19 with 5:45 left in the period.
“He was pretty big and pretty strong and he moved with that weight well,” Armstrong said. “I haven’t seen anybody that big move like that before.”
It was part of a 6-0 run that ended with Thomas’ dunk that gave the Tigers their largest lead at 14 and drew an immediate timeout from UConn. The Connecticut fans broke into boos as their team trotted to the bench for the timeout and that prompted coach Jim Calhoun to look up into the stands and motion for the crowd to boo more.
“They became frustrated. We were frustrated,” Calhoun said. “We didn’t need anybody else’s help. I was upset and I used it for my team.”
That all changed in the next two UConn possessions. Jeff Adrien had a strong putback and Anderson stole the inbounds pass and hit a jumper. This time the crowd’s response was a deafening roar of approval. Anderson went on to hit a pair of 3s as the Huskies closed the half on a 7-2 run to trail 37-30 at the break.
The sellout crowd of 16,294 stayed in the game the rest of the way and fans were on their feet for the closing minutes. Armstrong made sure they had something to cheer about.
“We kept it in our head that it was a winnable game,” Armstrong said. “We’ve been in this situation before.”