Friday, March 13, 2009

Syracuse beats UConn, playing their way into history

You see this?

This is me taking off the journalist hat for a second.

I was lucky enough to be in attendance for the thriller marathon epic battle instant classic (insert cliche sports term here) last night at the Mecca of basketball as UConn and Syracuse went six overtimes to decide who got a trip to the Big East semi's.

Yes, I am a college basketball writer. Yes, I am a UConn fan, CT born and raised. But during the last 40 minutes of basketball, I wasn't a journalist and I wasn't a UConn fan.

I was just another guy enjoying the fact that I was witnessing history.

The final scoreboard from last night.
(photo credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Does this game count as history? Was it one of the greatest of all-time? That is debatable, full of speculation and biases, and completely subjective. I can tell you this - watching the game from the stands, you knew that this was going to be a game that you can always say you were at.

I'm sure it was the way that everyone in attendance felt in 1983 when they watched Jim Valvano's NC State Wolfpack win a national title thanks to Lorenzo Charles' dunk. Or how fans watching Villanova play the perfect game to upset Georgetown in the 1985 title felt (my dad still has not forgiven me for being born during this game). What about those at the Duke-Kentucky game from the 1992 Final Four Regional Final? Christian Laettner was 10-10 from the field and 10-10 from the line as the Wildcats and the Blue Devils traded leads five times in the last 30 seconds before the shot. Talk about great memories.

This may not have even been the greatest Big East game UConn has taken part in. That honor could go to the Allen Iverson-Ray Allen showdown from the 1996 finals. UConn scored the last 12 points of the game, capped off by a Ray Allen floater to take the lead before Jerome Williams missed three lay-ups at the end.

I will say this: in the grand scheme of things, sports don't matter. It is a game. We play them for fun. We watch them for our enjoyment, and hopefully some excitement. We watch them because the athletes are incredible at their craft, doing things most of us only dream of. We pay absurd amounts of money to go to games because there is nothing more beautiful than a well run fast break, or a perfectly turned double play, or a well timed fade route. We cheer for our favorite teams because, for one reason or another, we have a special bond with that team. When they win, it makes us happy.

But sports won't get you a job in this economy. The World Series is not going to help you make your mortgage payments. The World Cup will not help solve the conflict in Iraq. Or the Congo. The Olympics is not going to cure AIDS.

What sports does give us is moments. Moments that will forever be trapped in time. Moments that you can look back on in 40 years, and still remember like it was yesterday. Whether you are a UConn fan, a Syracuse fan, a Duke fan, whatever, last night was one of those moments.

Justin Thomas celebrating the Orange's win.
(photo credit: Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

It is why March Madness is called March Madness.

It is why this is the best month of the year.

It is why Madison Square Garden was still packed well after the Metro North railroad and the NYC public transportation stopped running. No one was missing this.

So what makes this game so memorable. For starters, it is Syracuse-UConn. In one mans opinion, it is the biggest rivalry in the Big East (in basketball, Pitt-WVU takes the cake for football).

And that man doesn't even think it is close.

They are the last two teams from the league to win a national title. They have two living legends running the programs. In the prestige rankings the worldwide leader did over the summer, they were the top-two Big East programs, coming in 6th (UConn) and 9th (Cuse) overall.

Every time these two teams play, it is an event.

You could tell by the crowd.

The entire arena was a checkerboard of navy blue and orange. As Pitt and West Virginia fans started to clear out, UConn and Syracuse fans took over. They were loud, they were into the game, and they did not leave until it was over. It was weird, because this is the first time that I have been to a game at a neutral site where both teams involved drew huge crowds. I went to the second round games in DC last year where West Virginia beat Duke, but 75% of the people in the Verizon Center were non-partisan, cheering against Duke because they are, well, Duke. I've been to the Jimmy V and Coaches-v.-Cancer games in the Garden, but those rarely fill up.

Listening to the crowd, this game could have been played at the Carrier Dome or the Civic Center. Whenever the Syracuse crowd would start chanting "Let's Go Orange", the Husky faithful would try to drown them out with "Let's Go Huskies", and vice versa. It was an amazing atmosphere, and fit perfectly with the aura of the Garden.

The most memorable sequence came at the end of regulation. Midway through the second half, it seemed as if UConn had finally gained control, taking a 46-40 lead. But the Orange fought back, outscoring the Huskies 24-11 over a 10 minute stretch to take a 64-57 lead. UConn would respond, scoring the next seven points (missing three free throws in the process) before back-to-back buckets gave Syracuse another four point lead. UConn would resort to fouling, before finally getting the ball, down 71-69 with 27 seconds left.

On UConn's last possession of regulation, Craig Austrie missed a floater, and the ball bounced around before freshman Kemba Walker finally came up with it and laid the ball in with 1.1 on the clock. Overtime, right?


Syracuse would inbounds the ball all the way up the floor, where Gavin Edwards would get a hand on it, tipping the ball to Eric Devendorf, who knocked down a three at the buzzer. Game over, right?


Devendorf celebrates after hitting what he thought was the game winning shot.
(photo credit: Richard Kane/US Presswire)

Devo got the shot off a fraction of a second late. It was still on his finger tips when the clock hit 0.0. No basket. Overtime, right?

This time, the answer was yes. Watch:

What was so incredible was the swing of emotion, so quick and so violent. In the span of about five minutes of real time, it went from a shot to force OT at the end of the game, to a buzzer beater on a freak play to end it, to overtime because the shot didn't count. Jubilation. Devastation. Relief.

To say that was the only memorable stretch of the game would be the understatement of the century. The overtimes were filled with big baskets, bigger stops, and a group of kids absolutely playing their hearts out.

Take Jonny Flynn. The diminutive point guard had the biggest heart on the floor tonight, as Jim Boeheim put the ball into his playmaker's hands seemingly every single possession. Flynn responded to the tune of 34 points and 11 assists, making all 16 free throws he attempted (the majority of which came later in the overtimes) in 67 minutes of court time.

Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris are exhausted. And this is the fourth overtime.
(photo credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

That is more than most players get in two games.

How about Andy Rautins. Here is a guy who has battled injuries and consistency throughout his career at Syracuse, but how many big shots did he hit last night. His three at the start of the sixth overtime gave the Orange their first lead since regulation.

Let me repeat that for you. Andy Rautins three at the start of the sixth overtime gave the Orange their first lead since regulation.

With 1:17 left in the first overtime, Rautins came off of a screen at the top of the key, caught it, and nailed a 25 footer to cut a four point UConn lead to one. The most interesting shot he hit came with 11 seconds left in the third overtime. Andy's dad, Leo, played at Syracuse. In the 1981 Big East tournament, Leo tipped-in a miss at the end of the third overtime to win a game against Villanova. Prior to last night, it was the longest game in the history of the Big East tournament. Andy's three at the end of the third overtime tied it up, sending the game into a fourth OT, thus setting a new record for longest game.

Then there is Scottie Haralson. This is a kid who was a fairly highly touted recruit coming out of high school, but has been unable to get consistent minutes with the Huskies. He got a chance early in the first half, but Calhoun pulled him after about two minutes, which included a foul and an air ball. From that point on, he sat the bench until Gavin Edwards fouled out - the third of four Huskies that would be disqualified. To be clear, he was sitting on the bench for over three hours. What did he do when he came in? Knocked down a foul line jumper with 42 seconds left that gave UConn the lead in the fifth overtime.

Some of the stats from this game were absurd. Take a look:
  • 244 points were scored in the game, 102 after regulation. Syracuse won the OT's 56-46. Memphis beat Tulane yesterday 51-41.
  • It was the first time in 13 seasons that UConn has scored more than 85 points and lost. They were 105-0.
  • There were 209 field goals attempted, 93 foul shots, and eight players who fouled out.
  • The time of the game was 3:46. It ended at 1:22 am.
  • UConn had 31 offensive rebounds. Syracuse had 23.
  • To the players:
    - Paul Harris: 29 pts, 22 rbs (10 off), 56 min
    - Jonny Flynn: 34 pts, 11 asts, 6 stls, 67 min
    - Eric Devendorf: 22 pts, 61 min
    - Andy Rautins: 20 pts, 49 min

    - AJ Price: 33 pts, 10 asts, 61 min
    - Stanley Robinson: 28 pts, 14 rbs (7 off), 48 min
    - Hasheem Thabeet: 19 pts, 14 rbs (7 off), 6 blks, 56 min
    - Jeff Adrien: 12 pts, 14 rbs (8 off), 7 asts, 3 blks, 56 min
This game was amazing to watch, and even more amazing to be a part of (yes, I live-blogged it, I'm a part). As much as I wish UConn had pulled it out, being there and watching history unfold was well worth the price of admission. I hope the players realize that the game they just played in will be handed down for generations.

Sitting two rows in front of me was a family from Connecticut. They had two kids, both boys, around the ages of 11 and 9. These kids were huge Husky fans, cheering and yelling wildly throughout regulation and the first few overtimes. But as they started to lose focus towards the end, I remember hearing their father say something that really stood out to me. "Pay attention. You'll want to remember this."

Says it all right there.


Jameson said...

Well said Rob. Having no day session is the only reason I'm awake and alert right.

BTW SU-Georgetown takes the cake for best Big East rivalry. SU doesn't like UConn, but they HATEEEEE Georgetown and GU feels the same about SU.

Anonymous said...

Kentucky and Duke didnt play in the 1992 Final Four, it was the regional finals