Huskies Charged Up Over Victory

STORRS, Conn. – Tate George had The Shot. Scott Burrell made The Pass. Connecticut fans will always remember Kemba Walker for The Ankle Breaker against Pittsburgh in the 2011 Big East Tournament.

And Saturday at Gampel Pavilion, Roscoe Smith took The Charge.

What's that? Defensive plays aren't worthy of being named and don't have a place in the history books?

Think again.

On a day overflowing with emotion – and focused on coach Jim Calhoun's return to the bench following back surgery – Smith made the defensive play that may end up being a turning point in UConn's season. With 1:32 remaining and UConn leading Pittsburgh 63-61, Smith planted himself in the lane, held his position, and took a charge from J.R. Moore of the Panthers.

When Smith's teammates were done enthusiastically slapping him around in approval, they pulled him to his feet, and UConn started running its offense. With 1:01 remaining Shabazz Napier (23 points) calmly connected on a three-point shot to give UConn (18-12, 8-10 Big East) a five-point lead on the way to a 74-65 victory in the regular season finale.

It may have been the sequence of the season for UConn.

"That's the first charge we've taken in . . . six months, I think," associate head coach George Blaney said.

UConn learned late Saturday night that it will be the No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament and the Huskies will meet No. 16 DePaul at noon Tuesday. The combination of DePaul's 86-58 victory over Seton Hall and a 61-58 Rutgers victory over St. John's allowed UConn to move up from the No. 10 seed.

As the No. 10 seed, UConn would have faced a rematch of Tuesday's game in Providence, where the Friars rallied from 14 down in the second half to defeat UConn 72-70. The Huskies let a 15-point lead slip Saturday against Pitt, but the Panthers scored only seven points after tying the game with four minutes remaining.

Perhaps the difference Saturday was having Calhoun back on the bench.

"You feel like he knows all the answers and he's not going to quit on you," Napier said of Calhoun. "And today he showed it again. He's just one of those guys you want on your side to fight any battle."

Blaney was just explaining the other day that the Huskies are a shot-blocking team on defense. And UConn had nine more rejections Saturday. Andre Drummond blocked four shots and Alex Oriakhi three. But none were as important as Smith's charge and none came at a more critical time.

Pitt (16-15, 5-13) committed nine turnovers against UConn's pressure and faced its biggest halftime deficit of the season, down 36-22. But the Panthers hit seven of their first 10 shots after halftime and ultimately wiped out that 14-point UConn lead by shooting 63 percent in the second half.

Moore came off the bench to score 16 points in 30 minutes. Twenty of Pitt's 43 second-half came in the paint as the Panthers drove around, through and behind UConn's defense.

Smith stopped that by taking the charge.

"That was huge," guard Ryan Boatright said. "We've been talking about a charge the last seven games. Nobody had taken a charge. It was a huge play in the game and it was a momentum stopper."

Was it seven games or six months? Take your pick. Either way it had been a long time.

"It felt good," said Smith, who also had 14 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes. "They normally hurt but I didn't feel anything. Everybody was very happy. We've been kind of competing to see who would take the first one. Everybody was calling for me, so I just stepped in there.

"A charge is something you do on your own. You don't really practice taking a charge. You just have to be aware of where you are. And you've got to sacrifice your body for the team."

In a way, this final game before the Big East tournament was all about sacrifice for UConn. The Huskies had lost five of their eight games since Calhoun left Feb. 3 on his indefinite medical leave of absence. The Hall of Fame coach had surgery Monday in New York to alleviate his pain from spinal stenosis, and then returned to practice Friday – against his doctor's wishes.

Calhoun was so physically exhausted from coaching the game, he elected not to attend the post game press conference. More than an hour later, as he prepared to leave Gampel, Calhoun was asked how he felt and simply responded, "Tired."

"Jim's surgeon was at the game and came into the locker room after the game and said, ‘Just a normal post-op kind of thing. You just go and coach a game. When you were running up and down the sideline, I was getting concerned,' " Blaney said. "It's why he's in the Hall of Fame. He understands the team.

"He understands how to motivate a team. They were practically crying in the locker room, because he told them he loved them. And that's why he came back. It was emotional for him and very emotional for the team."

There was little change in Calhoun's bench decorum. He shook his head and held his arms wide apart when he disagreed with calls and engaged the officials in discussions over interpretations during timeouts. When Napier was called for a foul with 51.5 seconds remaining, Calhoun even jumped up and down three times.

"The only thing we did differently was put a chair out for him to sit in during the timeouts," Blaney said. "I only had to get on him once to make sure he sat down. . . . He is exhausted right now."

The UConn players downplayed Calhoun's absence while he was gone. But a three-game NCAA suspension and this spinal condition kept Calhoun away for a total of 11 Big East games. And for players who pick a school based on the head coach, 11 of 30 games can be a big deal.

That's why the Huskies were so excited to have Calhoun back.

"It was like an extra spark knowing he was out there," Drummond said. "Just hearing his voice again mad us play that much harder. He cares about us as a team, and it just shows his dedication, love and passion for the game."

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