John F. Silver
And the last reason for clapping was the sheer joy of watching a Big East basketball game.
UConn and Syracuse have been great rivals and often great teams. These programs can lay claim at one time or another to being the best college basketball team in the country. Few programs have ever been worthy of that title.
The Big East was founded for games such as Wednesday night’s thriller.
The Big East is now dead, the Catholic schools have split and Syracuse and others are off to the ACC, Big Ten and parts unknown.
Wednesday’s game wasn’t a funeral however. It was a great Irish wake that brought smiles and joy to everyone in attendance. With that, it was a reminder that nothing is permanent and that eventually a void will commence next college basketball season.
UConn and Syracuse have played 70 times in 33 years. The Orange hold a 37-33 lead.
It’s a shame this game will vanish from the schedule.
For UConn, Wednesday’s win was the biggest of the season as they moved within one game of first place Syracuse in the Big East. The Huskies did it with a stellar game out of their backcourt with Ryan Boatright leading the way with 17 points and Omar Calhoun adding 15, including 11 in the second half. Shabazz Napier completed the backcourt trio with another solid game with 10 points and seven assists.
Calhoun hit the big shots in the second half breaking a 42-42 tie with just under 10 minutes to go with the first of three 3-pointers. Calhoun hit three 3-pointers in a four minutes span as the Huskies went on a 13-4 run to lead 55-46 with 6:23 left. The Huskies kept the Orange (20-6, 8-3) at a distance the rest of the way.
“We’re just on of the purest teams playing right now,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “We’re not playing for the postseason, we are playing for the love of UConn. We’re playing for the love of each other. We’re playing for the pride of getting better.”
Beating a fierce rival for the last time, especially one ranked No. 6 in the country, was a just desert for the Huskies 17-6, 7-4 Big East).
“It feels great,” Boatright said. “They came in with their swag and thought they were going to blow us out of the gym. We hit them first, and in the second half they made a run and we came back and responded. It was a great team effort. It was a great win.”
The Huskies, as is well known, are banned from Big East and NCAA play due to a poor Academic Progress Rating. Despite the ban, the Huskies are putting together a monster effort this season in Ollie’s first season. The Huskies are 3-2 against Top 25 teams including a win over streaking Michigan State at the beginning of the season and now have a Syracuse win in their pocket.
Considering UConn’s roster, it remains a remarkable achievement. The Huskies played without 7-foot-1 backup center Enosch Wolf who is suspended from the team following an arrest Monday. They played a lot of the game without 6-8 forward Tyler Olander, who had three first half fouls. Undersized against the long and athletic Orange, the Huskies managed a surprising 38-36 edge on the boards.
The Huskies got a solid 14 minutes and five rebounds out of Phil Nolan while DeAndre Daniels (8 points, 8 rebounds) fought hard inside. Niels Giffey also chipped in with nine points and five rebounds.
“I think Connecticut has proven that they’re a really good basketball team,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Their guards played extremely well, but I thought all their guys played well tonight.”
The Huskies were supposed to be irrelevant this season. That’s the point of postseason bans and allowing players to transfer without having to sit out. The Huskies lost a boatload of talent to the NBA and a lot to transfer with what would have been their starting center and power forward leaving.
The Huskies have refused to go away. UConn is 7-4 and in a tie with Louisville for third place in the Big East one game out of the top spot where Syracuse, Notre Dame and Georgetown are all 8-3.
The Huskies now have their sights set on the Big East title with seven games left, four at home.
“It’s realistic. anyone can lose in Big East,” Boatright said. “We should be in first or tied for second. We let two games slip because we should have won; Marquette, we let St. John’s go, the only game we really lost was Louisville. We are good, we belong here, and we shocked a lot of people.”
The Huskies aren’t just playing out the string as a bottom feeder in the Big East. Quite the contrary, they are crashing the party and could make things awfully uncomfortable when the brackets are announced in March.
“They can ban is from the postseason, they can ban us from the Big east tournament, but they can’t ban us for getting better and loving each other,” Ollie said. “They really love being around each other, and it shows.”
For a team that feels it’s been unfairly sanctioned, the Huskies are reveling this role.
“It would mean everything considering they tried to take everything from us,” Boatright said. “They tried to bury us and for us to come out and play with pride and play for UConn, when the only thing we can accomplish is a regular season title. To do that would prove a point about UConn.”
UConn basketball is here to stay.