As a result, the Huskies are headed back to the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons and, after a tough finish in the regular season, may have some momentum following their four-game performance at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla.
UConn (34-26) created a scrapbook full of memories by becoming the first No. 8 seed to win the Big East championship. The Huskies ended top-seeded Louisville's 16-game win streak, rallied from a 7-run deficit against USF, and held on to beat Rutgers 2-1. But lefthander Anthony Marzi may have topped all of that with his complete game, four-hit performance against the Irish Sunday.
The junior from Berlin, Conn., starting on just two day's rest, told coach Jim Penders Saturday night that he wanted the ball – knowing the Huskies had to win to reach the NCAA field with the Big East's automatic bid. Marzi struck out six, retired the first eight batters, and took a two-hitter into the six-inning before Trey Mancini led off with a home run to make it 6-1.
All-Big East first-teamer LJ Mazzilli (2-for-4) supplied the biggest hit of the game with a two-run home run in the first inning, and the Huskies took command on Tom Verdi's two-run triple in the third. Verdi was 3-for-5. Senior centerfielder Billy Ferriter was named Most Outstanding Player after going 2-for-5 Sunday and batting .600 in the tournament.
The Huskies pounded out 16 hits and played flawless defense, highlighted by big plays by Mazzilli and rightfielder Jon Testani. But Marzi (5-6) was the focal point at the bottom of that dogpile celebration.
"I had a sour taste in my mouth after Thursday's outing," Marzi told ESPNU, referring to USF knocking him out after 3.1 innings in that winner's bracket game. "I just wanted to be part of it. It means a lot to this team to win a championship. I told coach if [Carson Cross] couldn't go, I'd be ready."
The NCAA will announce pairings for its 16 regional sites at noon Monday. The Huskies, who flew home Sunday night, will be back in Storrs to see what is next for them.
"A couple of weeks ago, I was down as I've ever been as a head coach," Penders said. "And they're just taking us on a ride and we don't want to get off."
UConn won the Big East championship in 1990 and 1994 when the tournament was held in Bristol. Last year in Clearwater, the Huskies watched USF celebrate after consecutive victories over the UConn. And in 2011, when UConn was seeded No. 1 and had 10 players drafted, the Huskies lost before reaching the Super Regionals in the NCAA tournament.
|Big East champs (Steve Slade/UConn)|
This one was special to Penders because it was the last trophy handed out by the Big East before the conference splits up. Penders becomes the first person in Big East history to win the conference tournament both as a player (1994) and a head coach.
"It's been a long time coming but it's extra sweet today to win the last real Big East championship," Penders said. "This is why you coach. This is extra special."
For Marzi, that two-run lead after Mazzilli's home run must have felt like an enormous cushion. That's because Marzi has had more hard luck than perhaps any pitcher in college baseball the past two seasons. Sunday was his third complete game of the season but just his first win in those games.
In 2012, Marzi led the Huskies with three complete games and finished with a 2.55 earned run average in 15 starts – the most of any pitcher on the UConn staff. But his 3-8 record did not reflect that for one simple reason: The Huskies gave him close to nothing in the way of run support.
Six of his losses came in games when UConn was shutout, prompting Penders to say, "I've never seen anything like it."
Sunday, Marzi threw 116 pitches and retired the Irish in order four times. He didn't face more than five batters in any inning. He needed only seven pitches to retire the Irish in the eighth inning, one of three innings when he needed fewer than 10 pitches. Marzi's curveball was especially effective but he said he felt good about all of his pitches in the bullpen before the game.
"Pitching with the lead is so much easier," Marzi said. "It kills their momentum. It's real big to put up a zero after that."
Said Mazzilli: "I think it set the tone a little bit. We've been putting runs up a little late in this tournament. Those two runs were big."
UConn lost 11 of its last 12 Big East regular season games and finished 9-15 in conference play. The Huskies had a regular season record of 1-11 against the four teams they beat in Clearwater.
Verdi, Ferriter and Marzi were joined on the all-tournament team by relief pitcher David Mahoney.