Pitt-UConn a battle that's fueled by success
More than a decade later, Albert Mouring vividly remembers the wild scene at Fitzgerald Field House.
Mouring, a former guard for Connecticut, recalls the assist that set up his fadeaway 22-footer with 9 seconds to play.
He still can see Vonteego Cummings' errant inbounds pass, and Khalid El-Amin's game-winner as the top-ranked and eventual national champion Huskies, down by four with 11 seconds to play, stunned Pitt, 70-69.
El-Amin punctuated the Dec. 12, 1998, win by jumping on the scorer's table and taunting the stunned Pitt faithful, some of whom tossed plastic water bottles at the gloating point guard.
"I guess the fans were pretty upset that they lost the game," said Mouring, who lives in Maryland.
A series that began in December 1949 — the exact date remains a mystery — has become arguably one of the most intense rivalries in the Big East.
Part of that is fueled by the teams' success this decade. Pitt and Connecticut entered this season with the best record in the Big East since 2001, both going 96-36 during that span. Only one other school, Syracuse (81-51), won more than 80 games during that stretch.
"Pitt and Connecticut," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said, "is a rivalry of the highest order."
Curtis Aiken, who played at Pitt in the mid-1980s, said the rivalry has evolved.
"The big rivalries when I played were Villanova and Georgetown," he said. "Now, you would have to put Connecticut in there — maybe at the top."
The rivalry includes Pitt's first-ever game on ESPN; a game played during a blizzard that shut down the Northeast; three consecutive meetings in the Big East championship game; the largest on-campus crowd to ever see a basketball game at Pitt; and DeJuan Blair flipping Hasheem Thabeet like a rag doll while battling for a rebound last season.
From Ben Gordon and Chevy Troutman to Ray Allen and Jaron Brown, the top players at both programs turned Pitt vs. Connecticut into something special.
"If you ask any other school, they all think that we're their rival," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "But the history (with Connecticut), especially the recent history, is obvious."
They will add another installment to their rivalry when No. 23 Pitt (13-2, 3-0) travels to play No. 13 Connecticut (11-4, 2-2) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at XL Center in Hartford in the 57th meeting between the schools.
There are many reasons why Connecticut has emerged as perhaps Pitt's most intense rival — ahead of even hated West Virginia.
First is the teams' recent success, which compares favorably to a 19-year span from 1983-2001, when Pitt and Connecticut reached the NCAA Tournament in the same season only once (1991).
Second, their defensive, physical style of play translates into close, hard-fought games.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, it meets the main criteria of any rivalry — competitive balance.
Since Connecticut won 18 of 23 games against Pitt from 1990-2002, neither team has won more than two in a row.
"Our games are never going to be soft," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "They are never going to be pretty games, but they are always going to be intense."
The teams have split their past 10 meetings, with every game decided by 10 or fewer points. In all but one of those games, both teams were ranked in the top 25. In half of those games, both were top-10 teams, including two meetings last season when Pitt was a top-5 team and Connecticut stood at No. 1.
"Pretty much every game has lived up to the billing," Dixon said.
The Panthers have won three of the past four against UConn, including last season's sweep. The rivalry's intensity ratcheted up a notch when No. 4 Pitt won, 76-68, last February in Hartford for the school's first-ever win over a No. 1-ranked team. Blair flipped the 7-foot-3, 263-pound All-American Thabeet over his shoulder.
The physical nature of that game prompted Calhoun to complain about the officiating and said: "We'll get back to playing basketball our next game."
Then, three weeks later, with Connecticut having ascended back to the top of the polls, No. 3 Pitt won, 70-60, in front of a deafening, record-crowd of 12,908 at Petersen Events Center.
Pitt can set another milestone Wednesday. The Panthers, coming off victories at Syracuse and Cincinnati, will be trying to win three straight Big East road games for the first time in 12 tries dating to 1985.
"It's a very physical rivalry between both teams," said junior center Gary McGhee, who will start against the Huskies for the first time Wednesday. "It means a lot when we get a win against them."
In the pre-Big East days, Pitt beat Connecticut, 77-72, on Dec. 29, 1979, in Hartford in the school's first-ever appearance on ESPN. The Panthers, who trail the all-time series, 30-26, beat Connecticut in 2003 for their first Big East title, losing to UConn in the 2002 and 2004 conference finals.
"UConn is a program that has a lot of history," former Pitt guard Ronald Ramon said. "If you want to get to the top, you have to get after the team that has that history. It starts from there."
Dixon said the Huskies provided a template for Pitt when he arrived with Ben Howland prior to the 1999-2000 season. Connecticut was coming off a national championship, and Pitt's new coaching staff stressed rebounding, tough man-to-man defense and program continuity.
"Connecticut is the team that we probably emulated the most," Dixon said. "It seemed like a model that made sense."
The rivalry is heightened because Pitt is 7-5 against Connecticut since March 2003. No other team in the Big East has a winning record vs. Connecticut during that span. And Pitt beats the Huskies without the five-star recruits or McDonald's All-Americans that typically dot the UConn roster.
But in the end, the rivalry is intense because beating the other guy means a big step toward Big East championships and high seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
"It's not the Hatfields and the McCoys," Bilas said. "It doesn't have to do with a lot of history or geography. It has to do with banners, and I think that's the best kind of rivalry."
Here are some memorable games in the Pitt-Connecticut series:
Dec. 29, 1979
Pitt 77, Connecticut 72 — In its first-ever appearance on the new all-sports channel ESPN, Pitt defeats the Huskies to win the Connecticut Mutual Classic.
Feb. 20, 1993
Connecticut 81, Pitt 80 — In the series' lone one-point game, Pitt nearly erases a 16-point deficit, but officials don't make the call as the Panthers try to foul with 8 seconds to play and UConn, paced by Kevin Ollie's 17 points, holds on at the Field House.
Jan. 11, 1995
Connecticut 85, Pitt 76 — Host Pitt leads, 40-15, with five minutes to play in the first half, but Ray Allen scores 19 of his 27 points after halftime and No. 2 Connecticut stages the rivalry's greatest comeback.
Dec. 12, 1998
Connecticut 70, Pitt 69 — Guard Khalid El-Amin hits the game-winner with 2 seconds to play for No. 1 UConn and then jumps on the scorer's table and taunts the stunned Pitt student section to send the Field House into an uproar.
March 9, 2002
Connecticut 74, Pitt 65 (2OT) — In the first of their three consecutive meetings in the Big East Tournament finals, Taliek Brown's 35-foot 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down in the second overtime highlighted the Huskies' victory over Pitt.
March 15, 2003
Pitt 74, Connecticut 56 — The Panthers win their first-ever Big East Tournament championship by routing the Huskies, as MVP Julius Page scores 16 points, Jaron Brown (19 points, 10 rebounds) has a double-double and Brandin Knight adds 16 points and six assists.
Feb. 15, 2004
Pitt 75, Connecticut 68 — One month after UConn hands Jamie Dixon his first loss after an 18-0 start, No. 4 Pitt gets revenge against the No. 5 Huskies in the first-ever home game between two top-5 teams.
March 13, 2004
Connecticut 61, Pitt 58 — In the team's third consecutive meeting in the Big East finals, No. 6 Pitt led by as many as 11 points in the second half, but Ben Gordon's jumper in the lane gave No. 9 UConn the lead for good with 30 seconds to play.
Jan. 22, 2005
Pitt 76, Connecticut 66 — With New England being slammed by a massive blizzard, Chevon Troutman scores 25 of his career-high 29 points in the second half and visiting Pitt, down by 17 late in the first half, rallies for the win.
Feb. 16, 2009
Pitt 76, Connecticut 68 — DeJuan Blair records 22 points and 23 rebounds and flips 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet over his shoulder grabbing a rebound, as No. 4 Pitt manhandles top-ranked Connecticut for the Panthers' first win against a No. 1 team in 14 tries.
March 7, 2009
Pitt 70, Connecticut 60 — In the Blair-Thabeet rematch, Sam Young scores a career-high 31 points and grabs 10 rebounds, as No. 3 Pitt sweeps No. 1 UConn in front of a Senior Day Petersen Events Center-record crowd of 12,908. for the first tie