Sweet Sixteen Thursday Review: Tigers Roll, Duke Chokes

March 27th, 2009
Five Big East teams made their way into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and so far five remain. A trio of teams from the nation’s best conference won tonight, guaranteeing the conference of at least one Final Four team as a retirement present for commissioner Mike Tranghese. The dominant question: how would Connecticut deal with the off-court distractions in facing Purdue? Point blank, the outside issues didn’t matter, with the Huskies controlling the game from start to finish in a 72-60 victory.


The Boilermakers were able to hang around for most of the game but it seemed like whenever they had the ball with a chance to get the margin under three points something would go wrong. A missed basket or turnover would lead to a Connecticut basket on the other end, and at a certain point the cumulative effect of those miscues becomes too much to overcome. The game was also a tale of two halves for key players Robbie Hummel and Hasheem Thabeet, with the seven-footer ultimately making the difference.


Hummel scored fifteen points in the first half, helping Purdue recover from a 14-3 hole to pull within five (30-25) at the intermission. Simply put, the original matchup of Jeff Adrien on Hummel wasn’t working for the Huskies. But thanks to a defensive effort from the Huskies, especially Stanley Robinson, held the sophomore to just two points in the final twenty minutes. Thabeet, on the other hand, was by and large quiet in the first half with just five points but his teammates made a concerted effort to get him the ball early and often in the second half.


“My guys in the locker room just told me the first half you didn't have good performance,” said Thabeet. “’You go back out in the second half and play your game.’ They know I'm capable of doing a lot of stuff.”


Two layups within forty seconds of each other got Thabeet going, and the big man finished with fifteen points, fifteen rebounds and four blocks. Double-doubles from Thabeet and Robinson (10 points, 11 rebounds) combined with Craig Austrie regaining his touch (17 points, 4-for- 6 FG) to cover up a bad night from Jeff Adrien (3-for-13, 8 points).


What did in the Boilermakers on this night? Getting outrebounded by fifteen (48-33) and watching guards E’Twaun Moore and Keaton Grant go ice cold in the desert. The two combined to shoot 4-for-18 from the field, and Purdue simply cannot beat a team the caliber of Connecticut when those two shoot that poorly. But head coach Matt Painter has a young team that is more than capable of getting past this point next year. Here’s a recap of Thursday night’s action.


1. Levance Fields comes up huge at just the right time for Pittsburgh.


The senior point guard from Brooklyn wasn’t having the best of games; in fact neither were his teammates. But Fields came up big for the Panthers, knocking down a pair of shots that sealed their first trip to the Elite 8 in thirty-five years. The first was a contested three from just right of the top of the key to put Pittsburgh up 55-54 with just under one minute remaining. The ensuing Xavier possession saw Fields get a steal thanks to the hard hedge of DeJuan Blair on a screen for B.J. Raymond, and the guard converted the layup to give Pitt a 57-55 lead. Three fouls shots later the Panthers were on the way to the Elite 8.


The defensive play by Blair can’t be emphasized enough, given the fact that he picked up a pair of cheap fouls reaching in on that type of play instead of moving his feet to get into position. “I think DeJuan did a great job hedging out strong,” said Fields of the play. “He got a hand on it. And I happened to be anticipating that and once it popped free, I was off to the races.” Neither team shot well from the field in the second half, but the Panthers were able to regain control of the boards (+7 margin) in that final twenty minutes and the big man woke up for eight points and thirteen rebounds.


Senior B.J. Raymond led the Musketeers with fifteen points but was just 6-for-19 from the field, and as a team Xavier shot 24.1% from the field in the second half. Sean Miller’s team more than held its own in the first half, slugging it out toe-to-toe and going into the locker room with a 37-29 lead. But that wasn’t enough to put away a Pittsburgh team that throughout the tournament has needed to taste its own blood before joining the fight in earnest. Luckily for them they’ve got a leader at the point that can make the big play at the right moment.


2. Missouri outruns Memphis, snapping their 27-game win streak in the process.


If you honestly thought that Missouri would score 102 points on Thursday night raise your hand. But what seemed impossible heading into this game became reality, with Missouri shooting 53.2% from the field in a 102-91 victory. J.T. Tiller, a tough guard known more for his play on the defensive end, scored twenty-three points and led five players in double figures. Missouri was aggressive from the start, eventually pulling away from Memphis to take a thirteen-point lead into the locker room at 49-36.


“I thought they came out and played with the heart and desire,” said head coach Mike Anderson. “They deserved to win that game. We came out and kind of took the fight to Memphis early on. Before you know it, our guys had a little confidence going about themselves.” It surely doesn’t hurt when Marcus Denmon knocks down a 65-footer as time expires, but that was just one of the many highlights for the team that likes to play “the fastest forty minutes in basketball”. Memphis was able to rally to within six thanks in large part to freshman Tyreke Evans (33 points), but John Calipari’s team was outscored by twelve points from the foul line.


“They beat us at our own game basically,” said Calipari. “If you would have said you will shoot 50 percent for the game, you outrebound them by three and have 14 turnovers; I'm telling you we win that game. So that tells you how well I thought Missouri played.” Missouri got twenty points from its bench while Roburt Sallie (12 points) did all the scoring for the Memphis reserves. Add to that a scoreless night from starting guard Doneal Mack and that tells the story.


3. Villanova dominates the second half in beating Duke.


Things didn’t look particularly good for Duke in the first half but they were still able to go into the locker room down just three (26-23) thanks to some cold shooting from Villanova. Villanova improved its shooting numbers (48.6% in the second half) while Duke got worse (from 28% to 25.7%), with the end result being a sound 77-54 beating at the TD Banknorth Garden. Villanova won the battle on the boards by fourteen and outscored the Blue Devils 25-7 in second-chance points and 44-18 in points in the paint. If the Wildcats were that much bigger than Duke those numbers could be understood. But they aren’t; the Wildcats were simply the more aggressive (and physical) team.


“This was a physical game,” said Duke forward Lance Thomas. “And their team put a very big emphasis [on making] sure they had four or five guys rebounding.” Losing the battle in those categories leaves you fighting an uphill battle to begin with; when Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer combine to shoot 4-for-32 from the field things will most likely get ugly. Both struggled to get good looks, a testament to both Villanova’s defense and the fact that the Blue Devils lacked a playmaker at the point. As well as Duke played in making the change to Scheyer they needed a guy who could break down Villanova off the dribble and set up those who aren’t as adept at creating their own shot. That man wasn’t present, but credit should also go to how well the Wildcats played on the defensive end.


“We really defended for 40 minutes, we really did,” said head coach Jay Wright. “It was better than the UCLA game defensively. That's why I'm really excited about this team.” Villanova has the look of a team playing its best basketball at just the right time, but the margin of this game shouldn’t erase what Duke was able to do this season. Thirty wins and an ACC Tournament title for a team lacking a solid answer at both the point and in the paint is a credit to the players and coaching staff.


Thursday Superlatives


Player of the Day: Missouri G J.T. Tiller (23 points; season-high was 15)


Team of the Day: Villanova


Clutch Performance of the Day: Pittsburgh G Levance Fields (five points within thirty seconds to put the Panthers ahead for good)


Quote of the Day: “I think the first shot -- when he made that first shot, he banked it in. I thought, oh, man, wow, this might be the night for us. And then when he comes and makes a second one, I say we ought to call the game right then and there. But unfortunately we couldn't do that.” - Missouri head coach Mike Anderson on Marcus Denmon’s two big shots


Thursday’s Scores


East Region (Boston)

#1 Pittsburgh 60, #4 Xavier 55

#3 Villanova 77, #2 Duke 54

Regional Final (Saturday): 7:05 PM


West Region (Glendale, AZ)

#1 Connecticut 72, #5 Purdue 60

#3 Missouri 102, #2 Memphis 91

Regional Final (Saturday): 4:40 PM


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