Not feeling blue about Orange’s departure

By Carl Adamec

HARTFORD, Conn. — The University of Connecticut and Syracuse University women’s basketball teams meet for the 48th time Saturday at the XL Center (4 p.m., SNY) and for the last time in a Big East regular season game. The Orange are off to the Atlantic Coast Conference at the end of the year.

UConn leads the series 35-12, including 35-6 under Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma, with 21 straight wins. Syracuse’s last win came on Jan. 2, 1996, 62-59 at Manley Field House. The Orange’s last win in Connecticut was 68-51 at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 15, 1992, or exactly one week after UConn junior Stefanie Dolson was born. Dolson, by the way, needs eight points Saturday to reach 1,000 for her career.

“They were the team you had to beat when I first joined the league (in 1985),” Auriemma said. “Syracuse, Providence, and Villanova were the three best teams.”

Unlike the men’s side where UConn-Syracuse makes lasting memories about every time they play, the women’s side of things probably won’t be missed much. It isn’t that the series hasn’t had some interesting moments, though most of them seem to happen off the court, but just take Auriemma’s answer to a question about what he remembers.

“Probably when they beat us up there (in 1996), either that or when we cancelled the game (in 1989) so we wouldn’t be banned from the Big East tournament.”

Not exactly “Wow!” moments there. But let’s take a look at some of the history.

The first meeting was on Dec. 29, 1980, a 73-68 Syracuse win in the second round of the La Salle Christmas tournament in Philadelphia. Auriemma lost his first game to Syracuse 68-60 on Jan. 4, 1986, but led the Huskies to their first win over the Orange 78-72 four weeks later in Storrs.

Three days after UConn clinched its first Big East regular season championship in 1989, the Huskies and Orange were to meet at the Field House. But two days before, it was learned that UConn had held a full preseason scrimmage against Division III Eastern Connecticut State. Under then-NCAA rules, that counted as a game on the schedule meaning the Huskies were one game over the NCAA limit and would be ineligible to play in the Big East tournament. Syracuse, though, agreed to cancel the game to allow UConn to play in the tourney.

“Barb Jacobs was their coach and we had to tell her,’ We’re not playing you tomorrow,’ ” Auriemma said with a laugh. “She goes, ‘We’re already here.’ I went, ‘I know, but we’re not playing.’ “

Auriemma was suspended by UConn for the final regular season game and Big East tournament. Chris Dailey guided the Huskies to four straight wins and the tourney title assured UConn its first NCAA tournament berth.

In 1995, UConn was 24-0 and No. 1 in the polls as it prepared to face Syracuse at Manley Field House. The Orange were averaging about 250 fans per home game and a big snowstorm hit the area the day of the game. Still, a crowd of 3,517 came out as Syracuse officials struggled to pull out the bleachers to accommodate the fans. UConn won 89-62.

The Huskies returned a season later and Syracuse pulled the upset as Jennifer Rizzotti missed three shots to tie in the final minute. Syracuse coach Marianna Freeman was doing a dance on the floor as the UConn coaches waited to shake hands with her. Later, Freeman called out to the small crowd, “We beat somebody.” The game ball was displayed at Manley Field House for a decade.

UConn’s 2000 Senior Night featured a meeting with Syracuse. Seniors Paige Sauer and Stacy Hansmeyer were honored as Hansmeyer sang the national anthem prior to the Huskies’ 100-74 victory.

During the decade, Syracuse moved its home games to the Carrier Dome. Don’t blame former UConn guard Mel Thomas if she doesn’t want to set foot in the place again. In 2006, she suffered an ankle injury there that sidelined her for two games. Then late in the game on Jan. 15, 2008, Thomas tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee that ended her college career.

On Jan. 17, 2009, the Orange traveled to Hartford to face UConn. Maya Moore scored 40 points, including the 1,000th of her career, in a 107-53 rout. But the game is remembered much more for UConn guard Caroline Doty suffering the second of three tears to the ACL in her left knee right before the end of the first half, then at the end of the game Syracuse’s Nicole Michael trying to trip Auriemma as the players and coaches went through the handshake line.

The teams would meet in the quarterfinals of the 2010 Big East tournament in Hartford. In the 77-41 rout on March 7, the Huskies would match their own NCAA record with their 70th straight win and Moore would reach the 2,000-point plateau for her career. UConn’s winning streak would eventually reach 90 and Moore would eventually finish with 3,036 career points.

But are the Huskies and Orange finished after Saturday?

Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said at Big East media day in October he could see the Orange and Huskies working out a home-and-home series later on which would mean a homecoming for UConn freshman forward and Syracuse native Breanna Stewart.

“Breanna’s a great kid from a great family and she’s going to be a great player in this conference,” Hillsman said. “We want to play the best teams we can and you never rule out the opportunity to play against the best.”

It just won’t be a Big East game.