11:34 PM EST, February 13, 2013
To get too wrapped up in the lost rivalries is to miss what is in front us now.
To get too wrapped up in Gerry McNamara, Carmelo Anthony and Pearl Washington and once upon a Carrier Dome is to miss the great pearl that UConn found Wednesday night in the oyster shell on the corner of Trumbull and Asylum.
If any school's fans are in danger of growing too maudlin over what has been, too mawkish over great basketball games already played, too depressed over what they think is not going to be, surely it is UConn fans.
So stop and smell this rather remarkable regular season, Husky fans.
It's pretty sweet.
"The big games," Ryan Boatright said after UConn had toppled No. 6 Syracuse, 66-58, "we call them our championship games."
Yes, it's tough that Syracuse is going to the ACC and Pittsburgh and Louisville and Notre Dame and did I miss anybody? Yes, it's tough that Rutgers got to go to the Big Ten. And that Pope Benedict is retiring to become the commissioner of the new Catholic league and even the basketball schools will be getting more TV money than UConn is to stay in the remnants of the Big East.
Yet it is nights like this one, rousing "championship" games such as these that slam home the notion that this UConn team — the one allegedly with nothing to play for — has given basketball fans in Connecticut everything to love.
"We're just one of the purest teams playing right now," coach Kevin Ollie said. "We're not playing for the postseason. We're playing for the love of UConn. We're playing for the love of each other. We're playing for the pride of getting better. They can't ban us from that."
"They can ban us from the postseason. They can ban us from the Big East Tournament, but they can't ban us from getting better and loving each other."
This was the grandest night at the XL Center in quite some time. It was loud. It was wild. And when little Ryan Boatright completed an alley-oop in the second half, well, it was wilder than that. The Huskies, supposedly too small to be big, are 7-4 in the Big East, one game out of first place.
"We really should be in first," Boatright said. "We let two-three games slip away. I honestly feel the only game we lost is the Louisville game. We shocked a lot of people."
Asked what it would mean to win a regular season Big East title, Boatright answered, "It's realistic. … It would mean everything, considering they tried to take everything from us. They tried to bury us, man."
That, of course, was after he told ESPN that Syracuse will be leaving for the ACC with "a taste of UConn in its mouth." Freshman Omar Calhoun, who hit big threes and finished with 15 points, knew a good line when he heard one. He walked into the interview room and promptly announced, "I know the tradition and the rivalry between those two teams. They got to leave with a taste of UConn in their mouth going to the ACC."
By that time, Boatright, who hit a huge three to give UConn a 29-24 halftime lead and then hit two more threes to reopen a five-point lead in the second half, already had moved on to equally juicy quotes.
"[The Orange] came in with their swag and their attitude and thought they were going to blow us out of the gym," he said.
"If you know Omar, he's full of himself. He's got a lot of confidence. He's got a lot of guts, too."
You know what the greatest thing about a rivalry is? It's unpredictable. It's unpredictable in its joy and its ugliness.
Thrilled afterward, Ollie said, "To end a rivalry 29-29 is pretty special. That's what a real rivalry is all about."
It also was a stat that only Jim Calhoun could love. In all the Big East season and tournament games combined, Syracuse finished 39-33.
Boeheim has been known to talk long and loud about his disappointment in the dissolution of the Big East and his love for the conference. He was not nearly so eloquent after this one.
"Jim," Andy Katz of ESPN asked, "what has the series with UConn meant to you and to Syracuse?"
"I'll answer anybody's question but yours," said Boeheim, evidently still angry about what Katz wrote in the Bernie Fine case. "You're an idiot. You're really a disloyal person. And a few other things I can add, but I'm not going to go there."
So Bob Rumbold of Fox CT asked the same question.
"It has been a great series," Boeheim said. "I think Connecticut and Syracuse have had so many great games over the years. I just think it was one of those things that happened, that goes away. That's just the way it is. It has been talked about a million times in a million places. The league wasn't able to be kept together. I feel bad about the whole thing. If they signed the football contract two years ago [for $1.4 billion with ESPN], we wouldn't have this problem. They didn't want it. ... Now they can't get it."
Boeheim said he's open to play anybody. He already has stated a preference to play Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova. He added Wednesday night that before the Big East, St. Bonaventure was Cuse's biggest game of the year and the schools haven't played in a decade.
"The biggest rivalries are the teams in your league," Boeheim said. "That's just the way it is. Even if you play somebody again, it'll never be the same."
He's right about that. This was a league game in 2013, and it was huge. In the future, there will be other league games against other teams and they will have to be huge.
On this night, those little UConn guards found their way into Syracuse's 2-3 zone and found their way into the hearts of 13,518 fans.
"Coach has been preaching all week that we need to get in the middle, split the gaps, get in the gaps and create open shots or get your own shot off," Boatright said. "He said if we just stood around the perimeter and jack-bombed threes, we're going to lose. We took it to heart."
In the closing seconds as Syracuse went to the free-throw line in quiet desperation, Boatright turned to the crowd and urged on the noise.
"I was thinking, man, if they let these people rush the court, I'm getting out of here. I ain't that big. I can't be out there with everybody jumping on me. Plus, I'm claustrophobic."
Afterward, the players hugged the students in the stands. Boatright hugged his mom. She was crying.
"It hit her deep," he said.
For a regular season game, a "championship game," it hit a lot of people deep.
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