Huskies' heart and soul
Take-charge Price has UConn back on the rise
Posted: Thursday February 14, 2008 12:59AM; Updated: Thursday February 14, 2008 10:54AM
STORRS, Conn. -- He spent the final 17.3 seconds of the game with a wad of cotton jammed up his right nostril, looking like a cruiserweight pugilist who had taken, and subsequently shaken off, a shot to the schnoz. A.J. Price was in that bloodied state courtesy of an inadvertently placed, late foul by Notre Dame heavyweight Luke Harangody -- "it was a big forearm," Price said -- with the score 82-78 in UConn's favor.
Wednesday night's fight was already decided by then, after the top two candidates for Big East Player of the Year had slugged out an epic battle. Harangody had a career-high 32 points and 16 rebounds. Price had a career-high 26 points to go with nine assists and just one turnover -- and UConn also won its eighth straight game, 84-78.
Punchless and directionless at this time a year ago, the revived Huskies are one of the nation's biggest surprise stories this season. This is in no small part because Price, the redshirt junior point guard who spent Year 1 in Storrs battling a life-threating brain condition, Year 2 suspended for his involvement in the infamous "laptopgate" and Year 3 finding his footing in his on-court debut, has finally emerged as a high-scoring team leader in Year 4.
There was no way Price could stand even with Harangody in the box score; the Irish's star scored 22 points in the second half alone, mostly by finding ways to either elude or outhustle the Huskies' 7-foot-3 block machine, Hasheem Thabeet. But, said Price, "Once I saw Harangody almost taking over, I made a conscious effort to try to match him and get my team back in it."
That was how UConn, now in a tie for second place in the Big East at 8-3 (and 18-5 overall), erased the five-point deficit it faced with 10 minutes to go: Price, aggressively driving to the basket to cut the lead to two with 7:53 left; Price, dishing to Doug Wiggins for a dunk with 5:20 left that sustained the two-point margin; Price, finding Stanley Robinson for a dagger three-pointer with 1:56 left that put the Huskies up five. That shot, said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, "was the game." His team, which made just one of its final 19 shots under UConn's stifling defensive pressure, never recovered.
Brey's Irish had beaten UConn 73-67 in their first meeting on Jan. 5, but the coach said he was "scared to death" of the late-blooming Price coming into this game. "He's been a key to their run, just how he's stirring the drink, so to speak," said Brey. "We had a real hard time with him."
Notre Dame threw every defense it had at Price, from a box-and-one, to a straight man-to-man, to a 2-3 zone, but routinely failed to contain his penetration. He is playing with a blend of grace and -- the part UConn coach Jim Calhoun likes most -- fearlessness that was missing during last season, when the Huskies struggled to a 17-14 record and missed not just the NCAA tournament, but also the NIT.