January had been rough for Connecticut as the defending national champions lost three games one more than all last season.
February started even worse with two losses in four games, but the 18th-ranked Huskies may have started to turn things around Monday night with a 59-50 victory over No. 23 Seton Hall.
Connecticut used the old reliables of defense and rebounding and a boost from a surprising source, sophomore Ajou Deng, to snap the Pirates' five-game winning streak and spoil the day they returned to the national rankings for the first time since 1993.
"Tonight we stuck with our defense. I thought we had some fire in our eyes," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. "I thought we'd score more points. I was happy we didn't get frustrated when we didn't. If we play defense like this we can play with anybody in the country."
"Losing to Notre Dame was tough and we wanted to just come out and play hard, make a statement that we're still one of the best teams in the Big East," Connecticut senior forward Kevin Freeman said. "Deng gave us that extra guy coming off the bench and it really helped. Coach talked to me about playing with more emotion and fire. I tried to bring it out tonight. I wanted to do whatever it would take to win."
The 6-foot-10 Deng, who had been expected to provide a lot to the team that lost All-America Richard Hamilton, had struggled but scored in double figures each of the last two games.
He came up big in the second half when the Huskies took controlHis jumper with 11:17 to play gave the Huskies the lead for good at 40-39 and started a 15-2 run in which he also hit a hook shot on the baseline and blocked two shots.
"That's been three, four weeks in coming," Calhoun said of the play of the native of Senegal, who also lived in England and Egypt before attending St. Thomas More Prep in Connecticut. "He's responding to the coaching and that's not always easy at Connecticut."
Freeman's free throw with 5:27 to play capped the run and made it 53-41. Darius Lane hit a 3-pointer and made three free throws when he was fouled attempting a 3 to get the Pirates (18-5, 10-3) within 53-47 with 3:40 left. But the Huskies went 4-for-5 from the foul line the rest of the way, the last a free throw that capped a three-point play for Khalid El-Amin with 25 seconds left that made it 59-48.
"We needed a win so I was just trying to do anything to help," said Deng, who had six points, five rebounds and the two blocks in 21 minutes. "I'm playing harder, more aggressively than I was a month ago. I tried to make plays at both ends of the court. Right now I'm hungry. I wasn't a month go."
Albert Mouring had 17 points for the Huskies, while Freeman had 13 points and El-Amin 11.
"We played with intensity and with a purpose tonight. That's what have to get back to," El-Amin said. "We did a great job of defending the perimeter. We decided if they were going to beat us it would to be the other guys not the perimeter players."
Lane finished with 17 points for the Pirates but was just 3-of-10 from 3-point range as the Huskies forced him a step farther from the basket than he seems comfortable shooting from.
"It was very frustrating," Lane said. "I thought we were coming back on them several times but we couldn't get the big basket and they just played us tough. We didn't rebound, get our shots or get the loose balls tonight. They're a great defensive team and they played great tonight but when we got good looks we didn't hit our shots and that made the difference."
The victory was the Huskies' 13th in their last 14 meetings with Seton Hall. Connecticut won the earlier game this season, 66-56.
"Certainly you could the affects of our playing five games in 10 days but that takes nothing away from Connecticut," Seton Hall coach Tommy Amaker said. "We had the shots but we had to work so hard to get those shots. They locked us up as the expression goes."
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