UConn falls victim to the madness

April 4, 2009 6:47:42 PM PDT
At 7-foot-3, Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet was the biggest player on the floor. He didn't play that way.

The Big East's co-player of the year led UConn with 17 points in the Huskies' 82-73 loss to Michigan State in the national semifinals on Saturday night. But Thabeet wasn't the intimidating presence the top-seeded Huskies (31-5) needed against a gritty Spartans squad toughened by the physical Big Ten.

Thabeet had six rebounds - fewer than three Michigan State starters - and blocked only two shots.

Thabeet had averaged a double-double this year with, 13.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. He also had 4.3 blocks per game.

Thabeet left the game with 1:26 to play, limping off the court and reclining on the floor behind the baseline. A trainer worked on Thabeet's legs, and the Huskies star soon returned to the floor.

It was that kind of night for Thabeet, who had jammed two fingers on his left hand in the Huskies' West regional final victory last weekend in Glendale, Ariz.

Thabeet looked as if he might dominate the game when he swatted a shot by Michigan State forward Raymar Morgan in the game's second minute. But the towering Thabeet's only other block didn't come until late in the second half.

Thabeet usually makes the lane a no-fly zone for opposing offenses. But the Spartans attacked the basket at will, scoring 34 points in the paint.

Thabeet's mother, Rukia Manka, came all the way from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, to watch her son in the biggest game of his college career.

On a night the Huskies struggled to score, Thabeet was UConn's best offensive option at times. The junior hit 6-of-13 shots from the field and 5-of-7 from the floor.

He converted two three-point plays in a four-minute span of the first half as the Huskies grabbed a 27-23 lead.

But Thabeet's frustration was obvious as the game wore on. At one point, Thabeet flapped his arms at the officials.

He also seemed wearied by the game's pace, with his hands on his hips during stops in play in the second half.

With UConn down 58-52 midway through the second half and badly needing a bucket, Thabeet went up over Goran Suton for a jumper in the lane and hit only the backboard.

The green-and-white clad fans in the Ford Field crowd of 72,456 roared with delight. But Thabeet's frustration wasn't over.

A minute or so later, UConn trailed 58-54 when Draymond Green muscled past Thabeet and grabbed an offensive rebound, drawing a foul on A.J. Price as he went up. Thabeet pleaded with the officials for a foul, but there was no whistle.

Two possessions later, the Huskies tried to feed Thabeet in the post, but he failed to seal off the quicker Suton, who reached around Thabeet and slapped the ball to another Spartan.

As the Spartans took off the other way, Thabeet stood under his bucket and watched. Soon he was walking off the floor with a towel in his hand as the jubilant Spartans celebrated a trip to the national final.