It's possible to get the best of Thabeet -- if you're DeJuan Blair
The tone for Monday's Blair-Thabeet battle was established from the start
Blair posted 22 points and 23 rebounds while frustrating Thabeet
Rugged Panthers proved who reigns as the nation's toughest team
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Have you ever seen a 7-foot-3, 265-pound man flipped over the back of someone eight inches shorter? It's a strange thing, because it seems to almost defy the laws of physics -- but there, just three minutes and 15 seconds into Monday's game between No. 1 UConn and No. 4 Pitt, was Panthers power forward DeJuan Blair, pulling down a defensive rebound and wrenching it away from Huskies center Hasheem Thabeet so forcefully that Thabeet's whole body followed his left hand, which was stuck on the ball, and he was thrown over Blair's left shoulder.
Perhaps the Ultimate Warrior -- the former WWF wrestler whose style is evoked by Blair's duel biceps-bands -- did this to Andre the Giant once, but the Warrior surely wasn't holding a basketball at the same time. Thabeet lay on the floor afterward, at first shell-shocked, then wincing and holding his left shoulder. The same student section that sung him happy birthday before the game booed at Blair then began murmuring about the fact that the battle of the Big East's best two big men had gotten off to an inauspicious start. One of the core truths of this college basketball season was in the process of being flipped on its end.
Length beats strength. You don't take the ball right at Hasheem Thabeet.
We had seen proof of that innumerable times over the past two months. Thabeet pushing Notre Dame's Luke Harangody away from the basket. Thabeet turning Louisville's Samardo Samuels into a flustered mess. Thabeet driving Syracuse's power duo of Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson to madness. Thabeet averaging 7.2 blocks over UConn's past five games and looking like a first-team All-America. If Blair, who came into the game averaging 15.4 points and 12.3 rebounds, had watched even a few minutes of tape, he'd have gotten the message: He best polish up his mid-range jumper, because at 6-7, he'd be a stubborn fool if he tried to take the ball right at the Tanzanian shot-eraser.
What we learned from No. 4 Pitt's 76-68 upset of No. 1 UConn (RECAP | BOX SCORE) is Blair is stubborn. But he's also incredibly good -- and more bullish than any big man Thabeet had seen this season. Blair put up 22 points and grabbed 23 rebounds, while Thabeet had just five points and four boards and was mired in foul trouble. Panthers point guard Levance Fields, a fellow non-believer in the power of Thabeet, told Blair prior to the game not to change a thing about his mode of attack, which tends to feature far more power than finesse.
"As big and tall as Thabeet was, and as great of a shot-blocker as he was, DeJuan had the body to knock him off balance, and if he went at [Thabeet] more than he backed away, he would be successful," Fields said.
This happened to work: Multiple times in the first half, Blair plowed into Thabeet and created the space necessary to release mini-hooks or point-blank bank shots -- awing not only pundits but most likely, the 17 NBA scouts seated courtside. ("I tried to get into [Thabeet's] chest," Blair said, "and I did a good job of it.") Thabeet finally swatted one of Blair's attempts with 1:57 left before the half, only to have the ball fall back into Blair's hands, then watch Blair drive by him for a layup -- and Thabeet's second foul -- to put the Panthers up 34-28. Said Blair, who finished the half with more points (15) and as many rebounds (13) as he did in his final meeting with Thabeet last season, "He shouldn't have blocked my shot."
In what would go down as the most entertaining and most physical game I've seen all season -- at times it resembled wrestling, at times it resembled basketball -- even Blair did not emerge unscathed. In the 13th minute of the second half, with the Panthers up 46-43, he was drilled by an unidentified elbow so hard in his left eye that he became dizzy and had to momentarily leave the floor.
"It seemed like I was in two gyms with a million people around," Blair said.
His eye nearly swelled shut, but no foul was called on this play, a fracas for a rebound under the Pitt basket. The whistles from the officiating crew of Mike Kitts, Ed Hightower and Tony Greene were, to say it nicely, erratic: Thabeet's third foul, which came just 57 seconds into the second half, while challenging a Sam Young dunk, was legitimate, but his fourth, a whistle for a meaningless away-from-the-ball bump into Blair, was questionable.
How the teams responded to the physical style ultimately decided their fates: Pitt thrived in it, winning the rebounding war (48-31), and with that, the game, while UConn was knocked off-kilter, and lost. In the postgame interview session, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun replied to questions about the officiating by saying, "The game was played different than any other game we've played. ... [The media has] got to come up the conclusions. I can't. I'd like to, but I can't."
UConn guard A.J. Price, who kept his team alive until the final minute by scoring 18 points and dishing out eight assists against just one turnover, said "that was a Final Four-type game, how physical it was," and admitted the Huskies need to learn to handle such situations better in the stretch run. It was their first meaningful outing without junior wing guard Jerome Dyson, who tore a lateral meniscus in his right knee last week and is likely gone for the season, and they dearly missed his defensive toughness and ability to drive into the lane at will.
Later, when Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was asked about the bruising nature of the victory, it was telling that he didn't find it all that remarkable.
"[The physicality] didn't seem like too much of a surprise to us, or to them, I would think," he said. (Obviously, he hadn't heard Calhoun's press conference.)
And Young, who led the Panthers with 25 points, was happy about how physical it was: "We always beat each other up in practice," he said, "and thank goodness the refs let us play physical today and show off our toughness."
It's likely Pitt didn't find the way the game was sealed -- on two dagger threes by Fields in the final 3:12, to turn a 61-61 game into a 67-61 game -- shocking in any way, either. Never mind that Fields is, in the aggregate, a below-average long-range shooter, or the fact that he had been 0-for-8 from the field in the game's first 36 minutes. As Dixon said, "He's hit big shots his whole career at Pitt." Those were two of the biggest.
Fields would not even let on that Blair's tour de force was a surprise, saying, "He had 22 and 20 against Harangody -- what did you expect him to do [here]?"
A reporter offered the retort Thabeet is seven inches taller than Harangody, and blocks infinitely more shots.
"But DeJuan is quicker than Thabeet!" Fields said. "And he's stronger than Thabeet!"
And on Monday night, Blair came out ready to brawl more than Thabeet did. The signs of that were evident from before the opening tip, if one looked at Blair during the national anthem. His arms were up in the air, pointing out, like he always does, but he was trying to pull forward more than usual, and was being restrained -- by the upper- back of his warmup shirt -- by two teammates, who were barking. Fields said this stunt is called "unleashing the dog." Blair is the dog.
"They let him go," Fields said, "and it's on."
Soon after, we learned who the nation's toughest team was. We learned that you can slam an 87-inch center over your back, to the floor. And we learned that it is possible to take the ball directly at Hasheem Thabeet, and score. But only if you're DeJuan Blair.