In the end, UConn needed one more play to get over the crest. Roscoe Smith's desperation jumper was blocked by C.J. Fair as time expired and Syracuse escaped Gampel Pavilion with a 71-69 victory Saturday in what should be remembered as one of the best games of the college season.
"I got fouled," Smith said, "but the refs did a good job. You don't want to call a foul in a situation like that. The refs probably didn't want to have a game decided on that."
While Smith was gracious after the game, his determined effort in the second half at both ends of the floor made a difference for the Huskies, who trailed by 14 points at halftime and 17 after Kris Joseph's three-pointer to start the second. The Huskies steeled themselves and clawed slowly back into the game, and the 10,167 in the building got as loud as a Huskies crowd has all season as the team fought ferociously for every rebound. UConn tied it at 63-all with 4 minutes, 17 seconds left on Andre Drummond's layup, setting up the dramatic finish.
"When you can fall behind 17 to a team like Syracuse and come back and tie it up, it's not a question of confidence," said George Blaney, UConn's associate head coach. "It's a question of playing full possessions."
Drummond, who scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, tipped in a shot with 47 seconds left to tie the game again, 69-69. At Syracuse's end, Fab Melo grabbed the ball above the rim and threw it down to give the Orangemen the lead, a borderline goaltending.
"It's one of those plays you can't say much about," Drummond said. "Sometimes they let it go, sometimes they don't."
Blaney called a timeout with 13 seconds left to set up a play. When Shabazz Napier couldn't get it inbounds, UConn called time out again as the tension built some more. Finally, Napier lofted the ball out to Ryan Boatright at midcourt, who got it into Smith in the lane.
"We were trying to get penetration," Blaney said. "At that time of the game, you really want to get to the rim unless you're going to shoot the three. … I would have liked to have seen Roscoe get up and really get into somebody."
Fair, though, was all over him. No call, and the clock ran out as Smith hit the floor.
"We didn't want them to have a three," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We did a good job of making them go inside. We made a good play there."
Joseph scored 21 to lead Syracuse (29-1, 16-1 in the Big East). Jeremy Lamb had 19, Ryan Boatright 14 for UConn (17-11, 7-9). The Huskies certainly showed they are still NCAA Tournament-worthy with the effort, but to ensure getting there they will probably have to win their final two regular-season games, at Providence and at home against Pittsburgh, and maybe one or two more in the Big East tournament.
"We've got to play the way we did in the second half for the whole game," Drummond said. "We've got to play like that for 40 minutes."
Gampel was buzzing all day, as the ESPN "College GameDay" crew broadcast its morning shows. As expected, the crowd was loud and in unison at the start of the game at 9 p.m., and UConn hung in for a while, trailing 12-10 early.
Fair hit a couple of wide-open jumpers to ignite Syracuse's 13-0 run, a stretch during which Blaney took two timeouts to try to stem the momentum. Little worked, and the Orange built a 15-point lead before Lamb banked a three-point shot to get UConn back on the board.
"We can't have lapses like that," Lamb said.
The Huskies made a couple of little runs to get within nine, but Syracuse was shooting well over 50 percent, committing no turnovers to speak of and overmatching the Huskies. They outrebounded the Huskies 23-13 and took a 43-29 lead into the half. The Syracuse bench outscored UConn's reserves 22-0 to that point. Joseph, who scored 14 in the first half, hit a three-pointer at the start of the second to extend the Orange lead to 17.
In the second half, UConn had the rebounding edge 24-18 and helped force seven turnovers and made a run. Boatright made a three-pointer to pull them within nine, and Smith made one at the line to get them within 56-48. The crowd was back in it.
"When [the fans] do that, you have to pay them back for that," Blaney said. "We certainly didn't do much to earn their respect in the first half."
Lamb put in a running one-hander off a great pass from Napier, and drew the foul. Lamb hit the shot to move the Huskies within seven with 11:53 to go. UConn got it back within seven again when Lamb passed it to Alex Oriakhi for a throw-down, 60-53 with 8:57 left. The Huskies crept still closer, 61-55, on Smith's follow-up with 7:05 left, forcing Boeheim to call a timeout. Lamb hit two at the line to make it a four-point game, and the Huskies forced another turnover. Drummond's put-back then had the Huskies within two with five minutes to go — just where they were at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 11, same score, too — 63-61. Syracuse shot 51.9 percent in the first half, 34.5 percent in the second.
Smith, who had 11 points and four rebounds, pulled down a rebound, and Napier's perfect long pass set Drummond up for a dunk to tie the game with 4:17 left. The Huskies had come all the way back to set up the dramatic finish.
"If we could have started earlier," Smith said, "it might have been a different story."