|Unranked but undeterred, the Huskies roared past Syracuse on Wednesday night. (US Presswire)|
HARTFORD -- Kevin Ollie's biggest win in his young and fledgling tenure as UConn's coach came Wednesday night at the XL Center, in a game that's the last Syracuse and UConn will ever play as Big East rivals.
The Huskies looked every bit an NCAA tournament team -- if only they were eligible to be one in 2013. But they're not, due to APR punishments from the NCAA, and so this is as big a win as the Huskies will earn this season. The 66-58 victory was Ollie's first over a Top-10 team. It came convincingly, and amid more than 13,000 fans.
Syracuse and UConn part as conference rivals with a 37-33 split in SU's favor in league play (it's 54-37 all time). Ryan Boatright, who said on television after the game that Syracuse is leaving the Big East "with a bad taste of UConn in their mouth" (a sentiment echoed almost word for word by teammate Omar Calhoun afterward), led all scorers with 17, 12 in the second half.
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The Huskies were playing without Enosch Wolf, a sophomore center who's been indefinitely suspended while a case of domestic abuse is settled in court. Wolf is 7 feet 1, and you'd think not having his height against Syracuse's bigs might matter.
Turns out, no. In part, it didn't matter because UConn sank 8 of 14 3-pointers. It busted Syracuse's zone. It also forced a season-best 18 turnovers. The Orange, conversely, shot a season-low 35.4 percent from the field. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse's eventual lottery pick, fouled out with 1:39 to go, the score 63-57, UConn, and put up 15.
The Orange were out of sync all night. This was the definition of a tough league loss on the road. Sometimes, you just can't overcome a club and a crowd rallying like this. It seemed for most of the second half that UConn had complete control. It seemed this was a team playing for its old coach and its new one at once, trying to get one more win against the hated Orange.
"It means a lot that we won, but it means more to be able to beat Syracuse," junior guard Niels Giffey said. "It's a nice way to end the series for sure."
As the game drew to a close, its ending obvious, Boatright and Shabazz Napier cheered on the crowd. The students wanted to storm the floor, but security held them back. The XLC Center was very much alive, sound roaring as though it was at capacity even though it wasn't. Maybe 85 percent. That was a little disappointing to see. But in a season that will basically amount to nothing in the big picture, truth is, getting XL to 70 percent capacity is a victory these days for UConn.
Afterward, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was curt and clearly disappointed in losing, going after a reporter, then stopped short of really praising this rivalry too much.
"It's been a great series," Boeheim, who has a 40-33 all-time record vs. UConn, said. "Connecticut and Syracuse have had so many great games over the years. ... That's just the way it is. Even if you play somebody, it will never be the same [after leaving a conference]."
Boeheim added that St. Bonaventure was once Syracuse's rival, and SU hasn't played the Bonnies in a decade. He said Louisville is a rival now only because of conference affiliation. It sounded like a man just flat ticked he lost in what could be his final game against UConn.
Hard to blame him. The team that lost Wednesday night didn't look like the extremely good team Syracuse has been for most of the season. But the Orange will recover, could still win the Big East, and plenty of good in its season is likely still to come.
Wednesday was about UConn getting its signature win of the year, the one Ollie and his players are likely to remember forever. It's unknown if and when Syracuse and UConn will restart the rivalry after SU goes to the ACC, but until then, it's Ollie with the 1-0 record. It's Ollie, the new, young breed of Big East coach who got the win and emphatically put a bow on the end of one of the better rivalrys the sport has seen in the past 15 years.
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