In Jim Calhoun's return to the bench, UConn pulled a reverse UConn during Saturday's uber-important 74-65 win over Pittsburgh: rather than the customary slow start and arduous climb back, the Huskies played a brilliant first half, shooting 55 percent and generally making the Panthers' defense look very bad.
Then, as usual whenever this team has found any good fortune, it fell apart quickly.
UConn's largest second-half lead was 15, and the Huskies were still up double-digits as late as the 14-minute mark. But Pitt was able to break down UConn's defense to create easy shots, quickly cutting UConn's lead to two, 50-48.
Enter Scoe the Show.
Roscoe Smith, who has been an all-around solid glue guy this year, and had a strong first half, came back in the game at about the 9:30 mark and did glue things - a block here, an offensive rebound and tip-in there, taking a charge here, a dunk somewhere else. Smith always seemed to be around the basket and always in the right spot to make a big play, which is what the Huskies have sorely lacked while losing nine of their previous 12 games.
Roscore had 14 points (7-10 FG) and seven rebounds, five on the offensive end. He scored eight points in the last eight minutes, after the game had tightened up, including the go-ahead points (which came on a great look from Jeremy Lamb on a fast break). After the go-ahead layup, he drew a charge; Shabazz Napier buried a 3 on the next possession to put UConn up 5, and that was basically all she wrote.
Toughness, desire and passion. (And, uh, offensive efficiency.) There hasn't been a ton of it during this moribund six-week period, but Smith showed it in droves today, and he's the biggest reason why UConn's NCAA Tournament hopes are still alive.
Elsewhere on a very nice Senior Day win at Gampel:I don't think it's a coincidence that the team came out inspired to play for Calhoun, nor do I think it's a coincidence that they ended up winning the game with those kinds of hustle plays (e.g. after losing the rebounding battle 16-7 early, Pitt's rebound margin ended up being 29-27).
Even when Pitt was making their run, you felt that the team was much safer in Jim's hands than in the hands of George Blaney, who stockpiles timeouts for the coming economic collapse where college basketball timeouts become our currency. For whatever that's worth.
The other key today was Shabazz Napier, whose 23 points, 6 assists and 4 steals (and just 3 turnovers!) were crucial. Shabazz made a number of very good decisions (mostly, threading the needle on a couple nice post entry passes) and some very dumb ones (the majority of his nine 3-point attempts, although at least he hit four of them). UConn's settling for jumpers was a large part of Pitt's comeback, and Napier certainly didn't help things out. He also happened to make the biggest shot, a dribble-for-20-seconds-then-pull-up 22-footer with 1:14 left.
Napier is what he is for this season, and if UConn wins games because Shabazz makes his wacky shots, hooray. And I can't fault him for wanting to be The Guy to take these shots; I just wouldn't bet on a 33% 3-point shooter making them consistently.
Beating ANYONE has been a severe challenge for UConn lately, and just hanging on against a very down Pitt team doesn't fill me with that much optimism that the Huskies have "figured it out." But it is nice to see that UConn did pick up their game after falling behind in what could have been the Huskies' third straight heartbreaking loss.
Up next for Calhoun and company: a likely Tuesday night date in the Big East Tournament with Providence, which the Huskies will likely have to win (if only to avoid the bad loss) to stay on the inside of the NCAA bubble. Unfortunately, Providence's only purpose in life is to beat UConn and win less than half of the rest of their games. Goody.