NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Jim Calhoun has never been one to shy away from letting his players know how he’s feeling about their effort.
And while the Hall of Famer was mixing and matching his young Connecticut team trying to find a way to make up a 10-point deficit with 8 minutes to play against Seton Hall, he got his point across about their need to play some great defense if the sixth-ranked Huskies were to avoid a third straight loss.
“I did challenge them on the sidelines a couple of times, really challenged them about what they were doing or not doing and the effort they were not giving,” Calhoun said. “I didn’t want to hear a damn excuse — I didn’t use that word exactly. ‘I hear one excuse and I will put you on the bench so hard that you’ll still be here when we come back here next year. This game is winnable.’ And then they did it.”
With Calhoun’s words and threat fresh in their minds, the Huskies closed the game on a 15-3 run to overcome the big deficit and win 61-59 on Saturday night, their 11th consecutive win over the Pirates.
What made the victory even more remarkable is that Kemba Walker, the Big East’s leading scorer, had another tough game shooting and even missed three free throws when he was fouled attempting a 3 early in the deciding run.
Walker finished with 19 points — 4.4 under his average — on 7-of-19 shooting. But he hit the 3-pointer with 2:32 to play that capped a 12-1 run and gave the Huskies (18-4, 6-4) their first lead of the second half.
“I can’t ever remember doing that,” Walker, an 82 percent free throw shooter said of his hat trick. “That was a great effort, that’s all it was. With 7 minutes left we just clamped down.”
Freshman Roscoe Smith made two free throws for Connecticut with 19 seconds left for a three-point lead, and after Alex Oriakhi blocked Jeremy Hazell’s 3-point attempt, Oriakhi added one of two free throws with 3.7 seconds left when he was intentionally fouled by Herb Pope.
“We were switching on everything and I had Hazell on a switch and I knew all they could take was a 3 so I got my arm up and blocked it,” Oriakhi, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, said.
Connecticut retained possession but the ball was thrown away and Fuquan Edwin laid it in at the buzzer for the Pirates (10-14, 4-8), their only field goal of the final 8 minutes.
Jeremy Lamb had 10 points for the Huskies, who lost home games to No. 15 Louisville and No. 17 Syracuse and appeared to be on the way to their third straight loss until Seton Hall went cold at the end of this one.
Hazell had 20 points and 11 rebounds for the Pirates, while Jeff Robinson had 15 points and 11 rebounds. Seton Hall finished with a 42-33 rebound advantage.
The Pirates missed nine straight shots during the closing run and suprisingly five of them were 3-point attempts when it would have seemed a better idea to run the clock down and try to get something inside and at least get a chance to score from the free throw line.
“We had some good looks that just didn’t go down,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “I thought we took a couple of bad shots in that run but most of them were good.”
In the last three games, Walker was shooting just 28.3 percent, including 3 of 21 from 3-point range. He made three of five 3-point attempts against the Pirates, the biggest when he gave the Huskies the lead for good.
The rest of the Huskies were 0 of 5 on 3s. They also went 12 of 21 from the free throw line (57.1 percent) after entering the game second in the Big East at 75.6 percent.
“Kemba has struggled the last five, six games and yet he comes up with the big plays, the rebounds,” Calhoun said of the 6-1 junior who finished with five rebounds, all in the second half. “This young group is taking me on some ways a great roller coaster ride, at least it was great tonight. That ranks with anything we’ve done this season.”
Calhoun said the losses to Louisville — in double overtime — and Syracuse were winnable games.
“The Louisville game, with a four-point lead with 4 minutes to go was the first time this season we took a win for granted,” he said. “When you do that you’ve taken a step no team, especially us, can afford to take. All week I told them we have to get back to grabbing the win and that’s what we did tonight, we grabbed the win.”
Hazell was 7 of 22 from the field, including 3 of 10 on 3s. The Pirates missed nine straight shots from Robinson’s rebound that made it 56-46 until Edwin’s layup at the buzzer.
Seton Hall led 32-27 at halftime and the Pirates opened the second half with a 7-2 run for their first double-digit lead of the game.
Connecticut’s offensive woes got worse in the opening minutes of the second half. The Huskies managed six points in the first 7 minutes and the Pirates took advantage to go ahead 50-36 on a move down low by Hazell.
Willard was asked about his team’s psyche.
“We still have a lot of games and we’ll find out,” he said. “We have six seniors. Either they’re going to mail it in or we’re going to see what we’re made of. I don’t think they will mail it in.”