AMHERST, N.Y. (AP)—After watching Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet foil his team’s spirited effort to upset the second-ranked Huskies, Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon echoed a familiar refrain.
“He’s really improved,” Witherspoon said. “It’s too bad he didn’t go to the NBA last year.”
Thabeet had 21 points and 18 rebounds, Jeff Adrien added 18 points, and UConn survived a big scare, holding off the Bulls 68-64 on Thursday night.
“Today was a big challenge,” said Thabeet, who also had four blocks and played 39 minutes. “Their guards were making everything and our guards couldn’t make a shot and we were still able to win.”
The Bulls (3-3) nearly upset then-No. 2 Pittsburgh at Alumni Arena two years ago, losing 70-67 after leading by 10 points with 14 minutes left. A repeat performance seemed unlikely against the Huskies (8-0), who won their first seven games by an average of 24 points.
But Rodney Pierce had other ideas, scoring a career-high 28 points to keep Buffalo close the entire game.
“I feel proud of my team,” said Pierce, who was 10-for-19 overall from the field, including 2-for-2 on 3s, and made all six free throws he attempted. “We were pretty confident. We felt we had to step it up even more to win. It’s just a steppingstone for what we can do in the future.”
There were 15 lead changes and four ties in the game, and the outcome was in doubt until the final seconds.
Connecticut gained the lead for good after Thabeet blocked a layup attempt by Andy Robinson and Adrien hit a hook off the glass to put UConn up 52-51 with 9:56 to go.
Thabeet’s bank shot from the lane gave the Huskies a 63-56 lead with just over 4 minutes left, but the Bulls refused to fold and two free throws by Pierce closed the gap to 66-62 with 75 seconds left.
Jerome Dyson then missed a drive in the lane, Thabeet was called for a foul, and Pierce made two more free throws to make it 66-64 with 40.6 seconds left.
UConn’s Kemba Walker was called for a travel on the inbounds pass, giving Buffalo the ball with 37.3 seconds left.
Pierce first tried a baseline drive but couldn’t get the ball past Thabeet underneath. Pierce snared the rebound after it caromed off the rim and called time out with 18.9 seconds left to set up the final chance.
“I was just thinking I’ve got to get to the basket,” Pierce said.
Pierce had a chance to force overtime, but instead of shooting opted to pass to Max Boudreau in the lane. Thabeet tipped the ball before it reached Boudreau, who bobbled it with 4 seconds left and Buffalo never got off a shot.
“If Pierce turns and throws up a 3 as the clock goes off, they get themselves a win,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “They were that close.”
Despite his team’s struggles, Calhoun remained relatively low-key, no doubt expecting his Huskies to eventually take charge. They really never did, but they escaped, and that’s all that mattered.
“I think they get surprised all of a sudden that the other team is going to fight back,” Calhoun said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s never going to make sense to me.”
Craig Austrie finished with 10 points and A.J. Price and Dyson each had six. Austrie and Dyson, who entered the game averaging a team-leading 16.7 points, didn’t arrive in Buffalo until three hours before tipoff because of academic commitments back in Connecticut.
Buffalo matched the Huskies on the boards with 37 rebounds, held an impressive 10-6 edge on the offensive glass, committed only six turnovers, but was called for 24 fouls to 10 for UConn.
The Bulls likely will lament for a while what might have been.
“You always think about the final play, but we had a lot of things we had to do right to be in that situation,” Witherspoon said. “We did a lot of things right. I’m going to go home with the last play, but I’ll go home with a lot of other plays, too.”
Alumni Arena wasn’t a sellout, mostly because Buffalo’s football team was to play Ball State for the MAC championship on Friday night in Detroit and many fans had already departed for that game.
But Pierce had the hometown fans that did come on their feet at the outset, hitting his first four shots from the field in the first three minutes as the Bulls raced to an 8-2 lead.
The enthusiasm never waned as the Bulls matched UConn shot for shot in the opening half behind Pierce, who made his first seven shots and scored 17 points before the break.