BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Jim Calhoun looked at the scoreboard, hugged his players and never changed his usually rock-hard facial expression. The Connecticut coach wouldn’t give into his own emotions.
A day after he suspended two key guards for violating team rules, Calhoun’s Huskies turned in their grittiest performance of the season to pull an improbable 68-63 upset at No. 7 Indiana.
In Calhoun’s mind, the victory meant as much as any since winning his second national championship.
“To do what we did is certainly the greatest I’ve had and it’s going to get up there since the national championship team beat Georgia Tech,” he said. “Quite frankly, they deserve more than a hug from me. They deserve one from the state of Connecticut, from the university, from our fans.”
Given the circumstances, it was understandable.
Less than 24 hours before tipoff, Calhoun faced a quandary when he learned Jerome Dyson, a starter, and Doug Wiggins, a backup, had violated team rules. Calhoun wouldn’t say what the players did but when he got the details, he decided to leave the players at home.
It appeared the loss of those two would doom UConn (14-5) against an Indiana team that had won 13 straight overall, 29 in a row at home and had the Big Ten’s best offense.
But the Huskies did more than just compete. They buckled down, gutted it out with a short-handed lineup and outplayed the Hoosiers in virtually every facet.
UConn dominated the middle, outscoring Indiana 34-16 in the paint and holding a 44-28 rebounding advantage, and when they needed to close it out late, Craig Austrie, Dyson’s replacement, made six free throws in the final minute. Five Huskies scored in double figures, led by Austrie’s 15 points.
To Calhoun, the effort meant as much as the victory itself.
“I was just hoping the clock would malfunction and go quicker,” he said. “We were running out of gas but we found enough inside of us. … I would hope all of my teams play this way from here on out. This epitomized Connecticut basketball. “
For the Hoosiers (17-2) it was a hard lesson.
They hadn’t lost a game since Nov. 24, hadn’t lost at home since Feb. 11, 2006, and hadn’t shot this poorly all season. Indiana, the Big Ten’s best shooting team, was just 8-of-29 from the field in the first half (27.6 percent) and 23-of-62 for the game (37.1 percent).
Even the usual standbys, Eric Gordon and D.J. White, struggled. Gordon finished with 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting, while White had 13 points and 10 rebounds. Armon Bassett led the Hoosiers with 18 points, all on 3-pointers.
“You can spin this any want you want, but we didn’t play good enough to win,” second-year Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson after losing for the first time at Assembly Hall. “Connecticut was the team that deserved to win.”
It sure didn’t look that way initially.
Indiana opened the game with three straight 3-pointers to take a 9-0 lead, forcing Calhoun to call a quick timeout.
Then things started to change. The Huskies righted themselves with a 12-1 run that gave them a 19-16 lead with 7:10 left in the first half.
That was followed by a defensive masterpiece.
Indiana scored just 15 points over the final 16:58 of the half, trailed 29-24 at halftime and found themselves in an even deeper hole when UConn opened the second half on a 7-3 run that made it 36-27.
The Hoosiers never seriously challenged again.
“I think for the first time, a couple of us played a little selfish, probably took some shots that we hadn’t taken all season,” Bassett said. “Sometimes we didn’t make the extra pass today.”
With Gordon and White struggling, the Hoosiers turned to Bassett and Jordan Crawford to keep it close.
But Connecticut extended the margin to as much as 52-41 with 6:04 to go, and the Hoosiers never got closer than five points the rest of the way even though Calhoun acknowledged his team was wearing down.
A.J. Price finished with 14 points for the Huskies, while Hasheem Thabeet had 12 and Stanley Robinson and Jeff Adrien each added 11 points and 11 rebounds.
“It feels good, coming down here short-handed, nobody really giving us a chance,” Price said. “We just fought. We believed in each other, we believed in the team, we believed in the system and everybody bought in and we played our butts off for 40 minutes. We played as hard as we could for 40 minutes and we came out with the ‘W.”’