BIGEAST: Orange hang on to top UConn, advance to Big East championship game
NEW YORK – Gerry McNamara sat in his locker room stall just a week ago and made some decisions. He decided that he didn’t like being embarrassed, the very thing that Connecticut had just done to him and his Syracuse men’s basketball teammates.
The Huskies won in a blowout, a thrashing that was becoming commonplace to the rivalry. McNamara decided it was not going to happen again. And he decided to use the sting of the loss not as a reason to pout, but as motivation.
‘It was good for us to get that out of systems, to get waxed and embarrassed like that,’ he said. ‘Now, we’re a different team.’
Last night, they certainly were.
Syracuse finally solved Connecticut last night in a Big East tournament semifinal at Madison Square Garden, holding off a desperate Husky rally after building a lead using suffocating defense to win, 67-63. The Orange advanced to the championship game tonight at 8 against West Virginia, where it will play for its first Big East title since 1992.
‘We showed that we can play with anybody in the country, play with the elite teams,’ SU forward Hakim Warrick said. ‘Tonight, we showed we can beat them. Especially on a big stage like this, just less than two weeks after them blowing us out, to come back and respond like this says a lot about our team.’
In a meeting of the last two national champions, Syracuse stifled UConn with its 2-3 zone, playing aggressive and impenetrable defense. That zone looked a lot like the confounding, trapping beast that served as the vehicle for SU’s championship run two seasons ago.
Every UConn outside shot was challenged.
Every interior passed had to navigate a maze of Orange arms.
Every time a Husky forward found himself with the ball inside, the Orange’s zone collapsed, leaving the ball handler one option, a kick out to a waiting guard, a pass that time and again Orange guards anticipated and deflected out of harms way.
The result was a 19-point first half for UConn, the Huskies lowest scoring half this season. It was also the fewest points SU has allowed all season in one half, and the fewest the Orange has ever allowed in the Big East tournament. SU held the Huskies to 24 percent shooting in the first half.
‘Our defense was the best it’s been all year in the first half,’ SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. ‘Our defense was tremendous tonight. We were just a little more aggressive, we trapped a little harder.’
The defensive effort was made possible by a concerted effort on SU’s part to play physical. The Orange had been battered by UConn in its previous two losses, and Pittsburgh also bullied SU
Last night, the Orange decided enough was enough. It outrebounded the Huskies 33-24 in the first half and grabbed 50 total boards in a game that saw 38 total fouls.
‘Coming in, I guess the rap is out that you can go and play physical with us,’ Warrick said. ‘But we’re not going to back down from anybody. And we definitely didn’t do it tonight. We showed tonight we can go out there and play with physical teams. When they push, you push back.’
The usual suspects delivered on offense for Syracuse, with Hakim Warrick scoring 26 points to go with 10 rebounds and Gerry McNamara chipping in with 15 points.
While Warrick’s performance was just another in a string of huge games, McNamara cleared an important mental hurdle – he played as he is capable of against UConn.
If he’s Achilles, the Huskies have served as Paris’ arrow in recent seasons. McNamara entered the game having shot 8 for 34 against UConn this season, averaging 10.5 points in the two games.
In those losses, ill-advised shots characterized McNamara’s performance. That stuck out this week in extra film sessions with assistant coach Mike Hopkins.
‘One of the things we really thought we did a good job against Rutgers was patience,’ McNamara said. ‘They’re holding and grabbing me off screens, and they’re not calling it. So I decided to play within the game. I’m pleased with the way I played. I didn’t force much.’
So McNamara and his teammates exercised their demons against the one foe that’s given them the most trouble for three seasons, the perfect way to build momentum on the way to the NCAA Tournament.
That dream almost turned to disaster.
After SU expanded its lead to 48-27 with 12:46 remaining, UConn began a rally that nearly ruined one of SU’s finest performances this season. Led by Charlie Villanueva, who scored a team-high 18, the Huskies went on a 22-7 run, culminating with a Rashad Anderson 3-pointer, which made the score 55-49 with 2:13 left.
The game was nip-and-tuck from there, but the Orange never let UConn come closer than five points until the buzzer. Louie McCroskey, a 49 percent free-throw shooter, sealed the game with two foul shots to make the score 66-59 with 22.3 seconds left.
‘The game just got crazy,’ Boeheim said.
‘I’m glad we didn’t end up winning by 20,’ McNamara said. ‘I’m glad it came down to the end, having to make free throws. I think that was good for us, having to finish a game out going into the tournament.’
But first, the Orange has one more game, the missing jewel in a triple crown for SU’s elder statesmen. Since the core of this team has been at Syracuse, they’ve won a national championship and seen their coach win his 700th game. The only thing missing is a Big East championship.
Now, they have a chance to remedy that.
‘This is probably the only thing I haven’t won,’ Pace said. ‘This is where we want to be. We want to win a Big East Championship and go into the tournament on a good note.’
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