DeJuan Blair issued a warning through the Pittsburgh media on Saturday that he'd be ready for UConn come Monday.
"I'm going to say I'm ready, that's all. I'm ready," Blair said, emphasizing that last word.
And he sure did back up those words, with 22 points and 23 boards tonight -- his second 20-20 effort in just over two weeks -- in Pitt's 76-68 win over the top-ranked Huskies.
Blair was practically unstoppable in the first half, when he scored Pittsburgh's final 13 points before halftime by consistently backing down his 7-foot-3 counterpart Hasheem Thabeet -- himself the author of a 20-20 effort on Saturday that earned him a second straight Big East player of the week honor earlier in the day -- for inside hoops.
And though Blair was a bit quieter in the latter half, he made one of the biggest defensive plays of the game. With Pitt up six and less than a minute to go, he snuffed a Thabeet shot – ripping it right out of the UConn center's hands – and hit Jermaine Dixon upcourt for a layup that pretty much sealed the Panthers' win at the sold-out XL Center.
In fact, Blair was the bane of Thabeet's existence all night. At one point early on, while both were going for a rebound, he lifted Thabeet off the ground and practically flipped him over his back and to the ground. Thabeet hurt his left shoulder on the play (though he returned shortly thereafter). And to add insult to (minor) injury, was called for his first foul on the play.
Then, with 11:20 left and UConn trailing by just a point, Blair drew Thabeet's fourth foul – a questionable call, to say the least. Thabeet seemed to be trying to establish offensive position when Blair ran in and the two collided. Referee Mike Kitts whistled Thabeet for the infraction.
"I was just running, I stopped, he ran into me hard," Thabeet explained. "But that's not the reason why we lost the game."
"I'm running down, he was standing there trying to push me," said Blair. "I guess he tried to use his brakes to stop me so they could lob it over, I don't know."
He later added: "It was a good call," winking his one eye that hadn't been swollen shut by a Stanley Robinson elbow. "Of course it was a good call."
Let's just say that Jim Calhoun didn't agree. Calhoun was extremely displeased – and, oddly, shocked – by the physical nature of the game, and the way the officials allowed the game to be played that way. It was Kitts who apparently drew his most ire, though Calhoun never mentioned him by name, a la Wally Rutecki last season.
A sampling of Calhoun's postgame quotes; you can read between the lines:
"(Pitt) played a particular style of basketball that we hadn't seen this year, it was very effective against us … I guess I wasn't the only person who thought it was very effective against us, either."
"I have no comments on the officiating. I think one guy spoke out for himself the whole game."
"If it's going to be called that way, let us know before."
"One guy could have been an awful lot better to help make it a better basketball game, but beyond that, I thought everybody else did their job well. And Pittsburgh, through that kind of game, beat us."
While Kitts didn't seem overly awful tonight, the Thabeet call was very questionable, to say the least. There was also an odd exchanged between Kitts and a Pitt player on an out-of-bounds call. It seemed Kitts asked the Pitt player (can't exactly remember who) if he had hit the ball out-of-bounds. The Pitt player naturally said no, and Kitts ruled it was Pitt's ball.
On why Calhoun was surprised by the physical nature of the game.
"I have no comment on that, you saw what you saw. If you didn't see it, you shouldn't be writing it. I think in the 90's, we played some games like that in the Big East. I know we did, and my team was involved with them. Lyman DePriest, some of the other guys, we played those kind of games … Give Pitt all the credit. They made all the big plays, and we didn't … Pittsburgh played us incredibly well. It could be the Year 2020, we'd still get beat on the backboards."
The physicality of the game didn't take Pitt coach Jamie Dixon by surprise.
"It seemed like a typical game to us," he said. "It was players playing hard on a national stage. It didn't seem like too much of a surprise to us – or them, I would think."
Well … not exactly.
***Oh, and one more veiled shot at the refs by the UConn coach.
"(Blair's) a great, great basketball player. Terrific player, a great warrior. When he's allowed to roam the post like that and use his physicality in the post, he's absolutely wonderful. He's a nightmare for every single coach. I'm sure in a couple of years, if he's smart by staying around, he'll be a great pro because you're allowed to do that in the NBA
***Calhoun was also self-critical:
"When we had a five-point lead, I did a very poor job of substituting in the backcourt. I should have taken the freshman out of the game and tried to get someone else in to run the offense. The offense stagnated at time, so that's my fault."
***It's impossible to say whether not having Jerome Dyson (who was at the game, sitting behind UConn's bench) contributed greatly to this loss. Calhoun was asked as much afterwards, particularly concerning a trio of late Pitt 3-pointers (two by Levance Fields) that put the Panthers up for good.
"Did we have four guys on the court?" Calhoun asked, rhetorically. "Someone's got to step up. They're basketball players, they're on full scholarship – out-of-state, $37,000. They should play basketball. Now's their opportunity … (Dyson) would not have been guarding Fields on those two plays."
***Blair plays with great fire, intensity and emotion. He was rarin' to go tonight from the start -- even before the start. During the national anthem, he was so eager to head over, shake hands with the Huskies and get this thing going that he had to be held back by a teammate from "And the rockets red glare" 'til the end.
Kemba Walker is UConn's equivalent. Just a freshman, he was the Huskies' emotional leader tonight and played very well. At one point, after a big UConn hoop, Walker got so jacked up that Calhoun had to motion to him to settle down a little bit from the sideline.
***Not only did this game end UConn's 13-game win streak, it also ended a stretch of 32 straight games in which the Huskies outrebounded their opponent. And boy, were they ever: 48-31, to be exact.
When asked about that, Calhoun had a strange response: "You know what you can do with stats? They may be dark for a while, but you can eventually take them out."
"The last thing I'm worried about is stats," he added. "It's the root of the problem, but I don't think it was the root of the game. It was a different kind of basketball game than we've played."
***This was the first time in 14 tries that Pitt has ever defeated a No. 1-ranked opponent.
***Sign seen in the student section: "Happy Birthday, Austrie." Except Craig Austrie's birthday is March 17, a month away. It was Thabeet's 22nd birthday, however. Not a very happy one.
***At one point, Calhoun yanked Austrie from the game and was talking to him on the sideline. It appeared Austrie was more concerned with taking a seat, so Calhoun appeared to direct Austrie to sit on the end of the bench, with the walk-ons. He continued to have strong words with Austrie for the next several minutes.
***Whatta ya say we all do this again in a few weeks (March 7) out in Pittsburgh? Sounds good to me.