U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2009 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Epic Heartbreak: Orange bounce Huskies from tourney in 6-OT thriller
Phil Chardis, Manchester (Conn.) Journal Inquirer

NEW YORK When the final horn went off, three hours and 46 minutes and one calendar day after the opening tap, the college basketball pundits couldn't wait to put a label on the game they had just seen, but could hardly believe.

It was epic, it was historic, it was a game they will talk about for ages, it was the greatest college basketball game ever played.

But for University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun, it was something much more simple a loss.

UConn's 127-117 six-overtime defeat at the hands of Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament Thursday night-Friday morning was nothing more than a loss to the Huskies' coach a disappointing loss, a frustrating loss, a loss that sends the Huskies home before the coveted Friday night semifinals for the fourth consecutive year.

For the moment, history be damned.

"I'm sure in the summertime, I'll look back and say what a historic battle it was," Calhoun said in the postgame press conference at about 2 this morning. "But right now, it's a loss. We wanted to get to Friday, we didn't get to Friday, and it's very disappointing."

Even more so because the No. 3 Huskies (27-4), had chances to secure the win in each of the first five overtimes and couldn't get it done. No. 18 Syracuse (25-8) scored first in just one of the extra sessions the last one.

"It was the greatest game to be part of, but it definitely hurts more so, knowing that we had a couple of different chances to win the game and we just couldn't do it," said UConn guard A.J. Price, who played 61 minutes, scored 33 points and handed out 10 assists in an heroic effort. "It hurts knowing that we had the chance to close the door and we usually do and we just didn't tonight."

The game produced some staggering numbers. Besides the record 244 points scored, the teams combined to take 209 shots, 58 three-pointers, and shoot 93 free throws. Seven players played 50 minutes or more and eight players fouled out four on each team.

And the drained Orange, seeded sixth in this tournament, must return to Madison Square Garden tonight (9:15 p.m.) to meet seventh-seeded West Virginia (which upset Pittsburgh Thursday night) in the semifinals. UConn, seeded third in this tournament, will return home to await Selection Sunday and see if the loss affected its expected No. 1 NCAA seed.

"I've got no words to try to describe it," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "I've never been prouder of any team I've ever coached. We lost our big guys first (to fouls), and they still had some in there, and somehow we survived. I think the strategy was to just get it into overtime far enough so that we could get all their guys out too."

There were heroes galore on both sides.

For Syracuse, Jonny Flynn played more than 67 minutes, scored 34 points and handed out 11 assists. Paul Harris scored 29 points, 21 of them in the overtimes, 10 of them in the sixth overtime, and grabbed 22 rebounds. Andy Rautins had 20 points, and made six three-pointers, all of them crucial.

Besides Price, UConn got a monumental effort from Stanley Robinson (28 points, 14 rebounds), and double-doubles from Hasheem Thabeet (19 points, 14 rebounds) and Jeff Adrien (12 points, 14 rebounds).

But perhaps the most revealing statistics for the Huskies were 18 missed free throws (24-of-42) and 27 turnovers.

"We didn't play like a team that had won 27 games," Calhoun said. "We lost the game because we turned the ball over 27 times and we couldn't make a foul shot. I think all our kids when you put that much effort into something and you end up shorthanded, you're not going really feel great and say, 'Boy we gave it our all.'

"It took this group three years to be the kind of close-out team it wanted to be, and it was. And tonight, we had close-out opportunity after close-out opportunity and we weren't able to take advantage of it."

The harbinger of the wild things to come occurred at the very end of regulation time of a game that was close throughout. After UConn freshman Kemba Walker (11 rebounds) found a way to put back the miss of a Craig Austrie shot to tie the game, 71-71, Syracuse called time with 1.1 seconds remaining. Harris' long pass was tipped by UConn's Gavin Edwards, but the clock didn't start immediately and Syracuse's Eric Devendorf (22 points) managed to loft a three-pointer as the horn sounded. The ball went in, sending the Syracuse crowd into ecstasy and sending Devendorf leaping onto the press table to scream with them.

But after a long review with the three game officials huddled over the TV monitor, it was ruled the shot cam after time had expired, and the overtime march was on and on and on and on.

"If they would have just called Eric's shot good, we all could have gone home two hours ago," Boeheim quipped.

The Huskies' frustration began in earnest when they took an 80-76 lead in the first overtime with 1:32 to go, only to watch Rautins make a three-pointer to get Syracuse within one. Then Robinson made only one of two free throws, giving the Orange the chance to tie, 81-81, on an open dunk by Rick Jackson.

In the second overtime, the game was tied 87-87 in the closing seconds when Walker drove and missed and UConn grabbed two offensive rebounds, only to miss both attempts. Syracuse also blew a chance when Flynn missed with just seconds to go.

In the third overtime, the Huskies scored the first six points and held a 97-91 edge with 2:08 left. But Syracuse's Harris scored on a putback and after a UConn turnover, he scored on a dunk to get within two. In the final minute, UConn's Adrien missed two free throws, got the rebound of the second one, and Austrie missed a three-pointer, but again the Huskies got the rebound. Price was fouled with 21.3 seconds left, but only made one of two, setting the stage for another clutch three-pointer by Rautins for the 98-98 tie. UConn had time for a three-point try by Price and a putback try by Adrien, but both missed.

The fourth overtime was tied 104-104 with 1:52 left, and neither team could score down the stretch, UConn missing twice and Syracuse getting two shots blocked (by Adrien and Edwards) in the final seconds.

By the fifth overtime, both teams were exhausted and UConn had lost Robinson and Thabeet to fouls. UConn had leads of 108-104 and 110-108, but Flynn then hit two free throws to tie the game. Again, a long three-pointer by Price and a follow by Adrien both missed.

As the sixth overtime began, Syracuse was using unknown names like Justin Thomas and Kris Joseph, and UConn was countering with Donnell Beverly. The Huskies, however, were clearly out of gas. The Orange scored the first points of the overtime on a Rautins three-pointer and never looked back. UConn missed four shots as Syracuse erected a 118-110 lead and coasted to the long-awaited finish line from there.

"Our Big East season is over and quite frankly, I can't wait to get the hell out of it just not playing the same teams and maybe playing a different style," Calhoun said. "Jimmy (Boeheim) and I say the same things. If I win, I say, 'Next week is more important.' He said tonight, 'Don't worry about it, next week's more important.' Neither one of us means it."

Second place: Pete DiPrimio, Ft. Wayne News Sentinel
Third place: Luke Winn, si.com
Fourth place: John Feinstein, Washington Post
Fifth place: Tom Kensler, Denver Post