SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP)—Jeff Adrien summed it up best: “UConn is back! UConn is back on the map!”
Ranked for the first time in over a year, No. 19 Connecticut used its shot-blocking prowess and stifling defense to hold off Syracuse 63-61 on Wednesday night. Adrien had 19 points and 12 rebounds and A.J. Price added 14 points to lead the Huskies to their sixth straight win.
“Jeff Adrien was a warrior out there,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said after moving one ahead of Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim with 767 victories, 10th on the career list. “It was a really, really good win. I’ve said a long time that this is a league that will eat its own.”
The Huskies (17-5, 7-3 Big East) have led the nation in blocked shots the past six years and lead again this season, and 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet is the centerpiece of the Huskies’ intimidating defense.
Syracuse (16-8, 6-5), which had won three straight, led 34-31 at halftime, but the complexion of the game began to change when Thabeet made four blocks and Adrien had another in a span of just over 3 minutes early in the second half.
“At the half, Coach told me not to worry about fouls and just ‘play the game you’re capable of playing,”’ said Thabeet, who finished with seven blocks. “It wasn’t about me blocking shots. It was the whole team defense. If the other guys get beat, I’m there to help.”
The Orange offense sputtered the remainder of the game as Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris combined to score all but three of Syracuse’s 27 points in the period.
“To have four straight possessions and get our shot blocked, that just changed the whole game right there,” said Flynn, who finished with 20 points and six assists. “We were kind of hesitating going to the rim, like we weren’t good enough. When you start having that thought in your mind, that you can’t go in there or you’ve got to settle for a 3-point shot, the game is over.”
It wasn’t on this night, though, until the very end.
After Donte Greene fed Flynn for a fast-break layup to tie it at 46, Adrien and Price hit mid-range jumpers to put UConn in front.
Then, after Flynn missed an easy layup off an inbounds pass from Harris, Thabeet blocked Kristof Ongenaet’s layup and converted a layin at the other end to boost the Huskies’ lead to 53-46 with 5:56 left.
Price fed Adrien for a dunk to make it 59-50 with 2:29 to go, but the Orange battled back. Flynn and Harris each hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to help cut the lead to 60-56.
Austrie made three of four free throws in the final 71 seconds and the Huskies escaped when Flynn’s desperation 3-pointer from the top of the key fell short at the buzzer.
Syracuse also was hurt by a poor performance by Greene, its top scorer. The freshman forward, averaging 18.3 points, was held to a season-low eight points on 2-of-15 shooting and was only 1-of-8 on 3-pointers.
“It was Hasheem’s job to play one-man zone and man-to-man Greene every place. I saw no other choice,” Calhoun said. “Everyone knew where he was, and if you didn’t know where he was you sat on the bench. I got everyone’s attention and told them, you will not play unless you know where Greene is.”
“You have to be aggressive to put it in there,” Greene said. “They were definitely keying on me. Wherever I was, they made sure to keep somebody in my face at all times no matter what was going on. It made it kind of tough.”
Harris had 24 points, 11 rebounds, four steals, and four assists for Syracuse, but the Orange also were hurt by a subpar performance by center Arinze Onuaku. In the top five nationally in shooting percentage at 67.2 percent, he missed five of eight shots, was not much of a presence in the lane, and finished with just six points and six rebounds.
With Onuaku sputtering and hesitant, the Orange were no match for the Huskies underneath the basket. UConn outrebounded Syracuse 27-16 in second half.
“The West Virginia loss, we lost by 20,” Harris said. “I’d rather have that than you fight so hard and lose by two. We had the lead. We had UConn, and we let it slip away.”