After cruising through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, Connecticut found itself in trouble for the first time. Thanks to Hasheem Thabeet, the top-seeded Huskies weren't in trouble for long.
Connecticut hardly needed Hasheem Thabeet as it romped through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
That all changed against a gritty Purdue team. The Boilermakers seemed to have an answer for everything the Huskies threw at them — except for the 7-foot-3 Thabeet.
Thabeet, the Big East co-player of the year, scored 15 points, had 15 rebounds and blocked four shots, and top-seeded Connecticut overcame a sluggish first half to defeat Purdue 72-60 in the NCAA West Regional semifinals on Thursday.
"Hasheem just took the game over," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "Purdue, quite frankly, ran into one of the best players in America in Hasheem Thabeet. Beyond that, the game might have been different if we had just, quote, a regular center."
The Huskies will play the winner of the late semifinal between Memphis and Missouri.
It was Thabeet's 18th double-double of the season, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Huskies.
One day after a Yahoo! Sports report alleged UConn committed NCAA recruiting violations, the Huskies (30-4) reached the regional finals for the fourth time since 2002.
Calhoun said he had a "fruitful" phone conversation with UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway on Thursday morning but wouldn't go into details.
"He said, 'Go get Purdue,'" Calhoun said.
That's what the Huskies did.
UConn jumped out to an early 11-point lead, then went cold and let the fifth-seeded Boilermakers (27-10) claw back into the game.
The first half looked like it belonged in a Thanksgiving tournament, not the third round of the NCAAs.
UConn shot only 39.4 percent from the floor, but it led by five points at intermission because Purdue was even worse (33.3 percent).
No one was colder than UConn's Jeff Adrien, who was 1-for-9 from the floor and missed his only free throw.
The Huskies had won their first two NCAA tourney games by an average of 41 points, but it was obvious they were in for a fight against the defense-oriented Boilermakers. The Boilermakers trailed 30-25 at halftime, but they ran off the court to the cheers of their black-and-gold-clad followers.
In the UConn locker room at halftime, Thabeet said his teammates told him to step it up.
"They know I'm capable of doing a lot of stuff," said Thabeet, a junior from Tanzania. "Today, the second half, they told me to go back there and do what you do all season long."
Thabeet did exactly that. He scored Connecticut's first eight points of the second half, then blocked a shot to set up a fastbreak layup by A.J. Price, who scored 10 of his 15 points after halftime.
That play was part of an 8-0 run that gave the Huskies a 42-31 cushion with 13:37 to play.
What's more, it told the Boilermakers that they were overmatched in the middle.
But it took Purdue a while to get the message. The Boilermakers answered with a 7-0 burst, and soon they had pulled within 44-40 with 11:24 to play.
"We tried to put them away three, four, five different times, and every time they came back," Price said.
But Thabeet dunked to push the lead back to 57-45 with 6:28 to play, and that was pretty much it for Purdue.
Craig Austrie added 17 points, and Stanley Robinson had 10 points and 11 rebounds for the Huskies.
UConn outrebounded Purdue 48-33.
"You've got to shoot the basketball at a very high percentage if you're going to beat them, if you get outrebounded by 15," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "It is very difficult to keep those guys off the glass. They have a great team, and you've just got to tip your hat to them."
Calhoun and his players had promised on Wednesday that they wouldn't be distracted by the Yahoo! Sports report claiming the school broke NCAA rules during the recruitment of former player Nate Miles.
Using its superior size and ability, UConn jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first three minutes.
Robinson dunked on an alley-oop pass from Price, and then Austrie stripped Purdue point guard Lewis Jackson in the backcourt and swooped in for a layup.
It looked as if Purdue would be blown halfway back to West Lafayette, Ind. But the Boilermakers regrouped and made a game of it.
Purdue ended its longest NCAA run since 2000, when the Boilermakers lost to Wisconsin in the West Region final.
"We did accomplish a lot this season," said Robbie Hummel, who led Purdue with 17 points. "We've been in the Sweet 16 now. We're going to be hungry to make it farther next year."
The Huskies, meanwhile, are still chasing their third national title.
UConn arrived in the Phoenix area full of confidence. The road to both of the Huskies' NCAA titles — in 1999 and 2004 — went through regionals in Phoenix.
Technically, this regional is in Glendale, to the west of Phoenix. But so far it has the same warm feeling for the Huskies, who are one win away from another Final Four.
"The opportunity to play Saturday — now you are playing for something even more special," Calhoun said.