HARTFORD, Conn. – With 27 seconds remaining in Connecticut's 66-58 upset of No. 6 Syracuse Wednesday night, Brandon Triche of the Orange stepped up to the free throw line for the first of two shots. At that instant, an extremely confident Ryan Boatright turned to the student seating section at the XL Center and motioned for the fans to get on their feet and cheer.
"Honestly, I was thinking, ‘Man if they let these people rush this court, I'm getting out of here,' " Boatright said after the game. "I ain't that big, I can't be out there. I can't be out there with everybody jumping on me. Plus, I'm claustrophobic. I get it from my mom. I can't be doing all that stuff."
There would be no storming of the court. The Huskies reversed the process and stormed their fans, passing single file in front of the student section, exchanging high fives and hugs with the fans. When Boatright got to the end of that line, his mother Tanesha was waiting for him. She jumped into his arms and grabbed on tight for a long embrace as tears flowed down her cheeks.
"I've only been to a couple of games this year," Tanesha Boatright said. "I picked a good one to come to."
A passionate crowd of 13,518 seemed to share that sentiment most of the night as UConn (17-6, 7-4 Big East) defeated the Big East's first-place team and pulled one game of the Orange (20-4, 8-3) in the conference standings.
Boatright scored 12 of his 17 game-high points in the second half. Freshman Omar Calhoun scored 15 points, including back-to-back three-pointers that gave the Huskies a 55-46 lead with six minutes to play. Shabazz Napier added 10 points and seven assists.
But this was a team effort on an emotional night. With Syracuse leaving the Big East Conference and heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, no one knows when this highly competitive rivalry will be renewed.
Even after a loss, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had to admit he is saddened by the breakup.
"We're open to playing anybody," Boeheim said when asked about the possibility of a non-conference series in the future. "But your biggest rivalries are going to be the teams in your league. That's just the way it is. Even if you play somebody, it will never be the same. It will never be the same."
On a night when UConn was down a big man, the Huskies found their resolve again and outrebounded the longer, more athletic Orange 38-36. Enosch Wolf, who was arrested on campus Monday and appeared in court earlier Wednesday, has been suspended indefinitely. DeAndre Daniels chipped in with eight rebounds. Calhoun added six and freshman Phillip Nolan, who had made no contribution all year, contributed five rebounds in 14 minutes.
"We're just one of the purest teams playing right now," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "We're not playing for the postseason [because of the NCAA and Big East bans]. We're playing for the love of each other. We're playing for the pride of getting better. They can't ban us from that."
Boatright set the tone early in the second half, hitting consecutive three-pointers around a blocked shot to give UConn a 35-30 lead three minutes into the second half. Then, with the score tied at 35, Boatright and Napier just grabbed control of the game.
Napier came up with a steal – one of seven for the Huskies – and took the ball to the other end for a layup and a 37-35 lead. Then a turnover by Triche (9 points on 3-for-15 shooting) led to another run out. This time Napier threw the alley oop to Boatright, who dunked and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
"He was telling me the guys in the back weren't paying attention to him," Napier said. "He said, ‘Remember what we did in practice when you threw the alley oop?' He said to look for it. I was looking for him more than my shot and I threw it up there. He got up there and grabbed it."
Napier said the victory showed UConn's resiliency. And in so many ways that is the theme that is developing with this team.
|Boatright got hugs from the crowd|
"It feels great," Boatright said. "They came in with their swag and the attitude. They thought they were going to blow us out of the gym. We hit them first. In the second half, they thought they were going to make a run and we came back and responded. It was a team effort. It was great win."
UConn played with confidence against Syracuse's 2-3 zone. The Huskies got the ball into the middle, took open threes when they had them and patiently took time off the clock.
"Boatright made a couple to start the second half that I thought were really difficult," Boeheim said. "Then they got a couple of good looks in the run and I thought that was the difference. They shot 8-for-14 from the three, which is the bet anybody's shot against us in a long time. And we didn't shoot so well."
Syracuse shot 35.4 percent from the field and 17.4 percent (4-for-23) from three-point range. Michael Carter-Williams led Syracuse with 15 points but fouled out with 1:39 left. James Southerland had 14 points.
The Huskies played a brilliant first half, controlling the pace and, perhaps more importantly, crashing the boards for a 19-16 rebounding advantage at the half. UConn shot 45.8 percent from the field, compared to 33.3 percent for the Orange. If not for nine turnovers, UConn might have held a bigger advantage than 29-24 at the break.
And that five-point lead was made possible by a three-pointer at the buzzer by Boatright, who had only one other basket in the half.
Nolan, who came back on the floor when Tyler Olander picked up his third foul with 1:01 left, pulled down a defensive rebound after Carter-Williams missed three shots – a layup, a put-back and a tip-in attempt. UConn used a 30-second timeout to set up the final possession with 19.1 seconds.
Napier patiently dribbled on the perimeter, but almost took too much time. He quickly unloaded to Boatright who had curled out beyond the top of the key and the deep three gave the Huskies a powerful ending to the half. The XL Center crowd went wild, Ollie applauded in approval and the UConn bench gathered around the starters on the floor.
In an interview on ESPN after the game, Boatright said Syracuse was "leaving the Big East with a bad taste of UConn in their mouth."
Later, Boatright said that's just how he felt and emotion was high.
"It means a lot that we won [against a Top 10 team]," said Niels Giffey, who had nine points and five rebounds. "But it means more to be able to beat Syracuse. It's a nice way to end the series for sure."
And with seven games remaining, the Huskies are within reach of their biggest goal. Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette sit atop the Big East at 8-3. Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are 8-4. Louisville and UConn are 7-4. It's a real logjam, but anything is possible.
"It would mean everything [to win the regular season championship], considering they tried to take everything from us," Boatright said. "They tried to bury us. For us to come out and play the way we do, play with pride and play for UConn . . . The only thing we can accomplish is a regular season title. To do that would really prove a point about UConn."