PITTSBURGH (AP)—Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon remembers when Connecticut considered playing the Panthers to be a “feel good game.”
None of the Huskies, most of all freshman center Hasheem Thabeet, felt that way after being shoved around by 7-footer Aaron Gray.
No. 6 Pittsburgh pulled away midway through the second half behind Gray’s dominating inside play and Ronald Ramon’s perimeter shooting, wearing down Connecticut in a typically rugged Big East rivalry game for a 63-54 victory Tuesday night.
Gray, helped by an injury that kept the 7-foot-3 Thabeet out for most of the first half, had 22 points and 19 rebounds—despite wearing a protective bandage on his right wrist after jamming it before the game.
Ramon went 4-for-4 from 3-point range while adding 17 points as the Panthers (17-2, 5-0) won their seventh straight. They are the only team still unbeaten in conference play.
“They have the opportunity to play in Atlanta,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said, referring to the Final Four site. “They manhandled us and took us out of our offense.”
Gray missed by a rebound of becoming the first Pitt player with as many as 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game since Chris McNeal against Boston College in 1992.
“He’s huge for us,” teammate Levon Kendall said of Gray, and he wasn’t referring only to his size. “Any time a guy gets 22 and 19, it’s hard to downplay that. That’s what he’s done all year and that’s what we expect out of him.”
Not surprisingly, Gray downplayed his own injury, saying the bandage he discarded about 8 minutes into the game bothered him more than his sore right hand did.
“If I thought I could do this every game, I’d hurt myself every night,” he said.
UConn (13-4, 2-3) lost for the fourth time in six games mostly because of poor shooting—the Huskies shot 35.6 percent from the field and were 10-of-23 from the free throw line. Yet they led 33-32 with 12 minutes remaining before Pitt went on a 16-2 run.
The Huskies went scoreless for 4 1/2 minutes during that decisive stretch, which started when Pitt scored seven straight points on Levance Fields’ 3-pointer, Kendall’s jumper from the wing and Gray’s basket inside.
The Panthers made it 53-40 on Mike Cook’s driving layup with 2:41 remaining, then spent most of the remaining time on the free throw line as UConn fouled early in every Pitt possession to try to get the ball back.
Dixon, who arrived at Pitt in 1999 as an assistant to former coach Ben Howland, remembers when UConn-Pitt games weren’t always this way. Going into the game, UConn had won 10 of 14 against Pitt, including the last two. The teams met in three straight Big East tournament championship games from 2002-04.
“I remember when they started calling it a rivalry, and I think Coach Calhoun did at first,” Dixon said. “It was a statement for our program—eight years ago, it wasn’t considered a rivalry. Now it’s game we look forward to, because we always seem to be battling for Big East championships.”
The Big East’s two most successful programs since 2001—no team is close to them in regular season victories—are known for their intense, physical styles. This one was no different, as was evident when Thabeet caught an elbow from Gray above his eye less than 2 minutes into the game. He was assisted to the locker room in obvious pain and didn’t return until late in the half.
Thabeet, who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks Saturday in a 68-59 win at St. John’s, finished with one point and six rebounds in 21 minutes but never took a shot from the field—evidence of how Gray was in control.
“He wasn’t the kid we saw the last couple of games … but he got hit in the head and we were worried we had a concussion,” Calhoun said. “When he came back, his eyes were watering.”
Jeff Adrien scored 13 points and Jerome Dyson had 11 for the Huskies.
Pitt had trouble shooting early against UConn’s inexperienced but quick defenders until Ramon got going. The Panthers, shooting only 33 percent in the first half, led 24-22 at halftime only because Ramon hit a 3-pointer with a second left. Pitt was much better in the second half, making 10 of 15 shots to finish 20-of-45 (44.4 percent).