STORRS, CONN. - It wasn't exactly Norm Roberts' ideal way to play No. 1 Connecticut - and that's an understatement.
With 9:05 left in the game, the St. John's coach found himself unable to call upon his leading scorer (Lamont Hamilton), his starting center (Aaron Spears) or his starting small forward (Anthony Mason Jr.).
"It sounds like it's a pretty big [problem]," Roberts said.
It looked even more like it. With a late surge on a ridiculously undermanned opponent, UConn wore out St. John's, 66-50, Wednesday night at Gampel Pavilion.
Hamilton fouled out with 8:58 left, Mason was sick with the flu and played only 16 minutes, but the biggest turning point was Spears' ejection.
The 6-foot-10 junior was elbowed in the head by the UConn's Jeff Adrien and retaliated by throwing a punch before players and officials could separate the two. Both men were tossed for fighting.
"It was in the heat of the game," said Spears, who will now be unable to play in the Red Storm's next game against West Virginia Sunday. "I know that I hurt my team."
After St. John's (10-7, 3-3 Big East) lost Spears, the Huskies went on a 19-6 run to finish the game.
"I just think we wore them down," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "They didn't have anymore players to play."
Calhoun and Huskies sophomore Rudy Gay both got technical fouls in the first half and physical play and hard fouls were the norm throughout, culminating in the Adrien-Spears scrum.
"It was like, damn, it exploded," senior Ryan Williams said. "It just got heated, physical."
Because of the loss of its starting frontcourt, St. John's had to get season-high minutes from forwards Williams (23) and Phil Missere (19), and center Tomas Jasiulionis (21). The reserves could just not handle the extremely deep and talented Huskies attack.
Hamilton (1-for-7 with three points in 13 minutes) was rendered ineffective anyway by a UConn defense that had 16 blocked shots and 20 points off Red Storm turnovers.
"They have so many weapons," Roberts said ... "When you make a mistake, Rashad Anderson makes the shot. When you make a mistake, Rudy Gay makes the shot."
Gay had a game-high 20 points, eight rebounds, and five blocks. Anderson scored 12 and forward Josh Boone had nine points and seven blocks.
Calhoun called it the most physical game his team has played in "a couple years."
But that came as no surprise after the two teams' had some off-the-court issues earlier this season. Six weeks ago, St. John's top 2006 recruit, Doug Wiggins, reneged on his oral commitment with the Storm and signed a letter of intent to play with Connecticut (17-1, 5-1).
There were rumors of Calhoun recruiting Wiggins, an East Hartford native, while he was committed to St. John's - a legal act, but not entirely ethical.
Two weeks ago, after a St. John's charter flight was delayed following a game at South Florida, Calhoun told the Hartford Courant that the Red Storm had left one of its players behind at the hotel. UConn was to take the same plane to Syracuse that night. It turned out the second-hand information Calhoun got was not true and he has said that his comments were "in jest." Roberts, however, did not see it that way.
And he didn't see the final score the way everyone else did either.
"It was definitely not a 16-point game," the Queens native said.
Until the final run, St. John's fought Connecticut tooth and nail. The Johnnies were only down 31-30 halftime after a Daryll Hill (13 points) jumper that beat the first-half buzzer. They stayed no less than nine points down before Spears and Hamilton were lost.
But Roberts will take no solace in his team's ability to play tightly with the top-ranked team in the country for more than 30 minutes - at least not publicly.
Said the second-year coach, "We're not in it for moral victories."
©2006 Community News Group
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