Photo courtesy of Nicole Sweet/USA Today
By David Cordova
Back in the days when the Big East Conference was at its peak, rivalry games were always revered. Those were the games that fans looked forward to seeing and the games that players and coaches couldn’t wait to be a part of.
Two teams in that conference that made a lot of noise were the Syracuse Orangemen and the UConn Huskies. The rivalry started on January 27th, 1956, when Syracuse won, 102-82, at Archbold Gymnasium on their home campus. Since then, the Orangemen have led the series, 55-38.
One venue that has seen plenty of good battles between these two teams is none other than the World’s Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, in New York City, which is also the home of the Big East Tournament. It was also the site in which both teams participated in a 2009 Big East Tournament quarterfinal game that went to six overtime periods, one in which Syracuse would win, 127-117, and which would end at approximately 1:22 AM.
Fast-forward eight years later to the present day, both teams are no longer a part of the Big East Conference. These days, Syracuse is now a part of the Atlantic Coast Conference, otherwise known as the ACC, which is a strong league in which the Orangemen have thrived in. UConn now resides in the American Athletic Conference, which is a league that they have thrived in. The Huskies won a national championship, their fourth overall, in 2014, their first season in the ACC.
Tonight, both teams were back at the Garden, reigniting the old rivalry with a matchup at the Jimmy V Classic, which is a memorial event for the late, great Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State coach who passed away in 1993 at the age of 47 from cancer.
In the last matchup between the two teams, which took place last on exactly the same date as this game in the same venue, the Huskies, although shorthanded due to injuries, emerged victorious in a close game, 52-50.
This time around however, the Orangemen would be out for revenge, and this game would be a different outcome.
Syracuse 72, UConn 63
As soon as both teams were introduced, the old magical Big East feeling was there, as fans from both squads cheered for their respective squads and jeered the opposition. But once it was time for battle, both teams were ready for battle.
Early on in the game, the Orangemen came out swinging, with five consecutive points from redshirt freshman Matthew Moyer, which brought them ahead, 7-3 with 17:13 to go. Moments later, sophomore guard Tyus Battle caught a steal and threw down a two-handed slam to bring them ahead 11-3, with 16:08 to go in the first half.
UConn was down, but they were not down, as a three-point play by junior guard Jalen Adams got them as close as 15-11 with 13:50 to go in the half. Then a pass in the paint by sophomore guard Christian Vital to junior forward Eric Cobb got the Huskies to within three, 16-13, with 12:48 to go.
But Moyer showed off his athleticism, by throwing down a putback one-handed dunk with 12:18 to go to bring the Orangemen ahead by five, 18-13. Then they went on a 6-0 run from there to bring the lead up to nine, 24-15, with 9:33 to go.
What helped out the Orangemen in the first half was their rebounding and also the fact that they were able to get to the hole efficiently. UConn’s only advantage over them was their ability to shoot from three-point range. But up to that point, the Orangemen had the game on lock.
The Orangemen went up as far as seventeen points, 37-20, with over two minutes to go in the half. But then the Huskies went on a 9-3 run to close out the half, trailing 40-29. In the first half, Syracuse shot a dismal 22% from three-point range, but out-rebounded UConn 16-12 and forced the Huskies into 13 turnovers.
The second half started out with Syracuse still in double digits, but unlike the first half, the preceding half, they started playing sloppily in the beginning. But then Orangemen continued to draw fouls, even though the Huskies tried to creep back in the game, getting to within eleven points, 45-34, with 16 minutes to go in the game.
But the hot shooting of Battle helped the Orange get ahead, as they went up fourteen, 50-36, with 14:35 to go in the first half. Moments later, Battle scored five consecutive points to bring them ahead, 55-38, with 13:20 to go.
Just when it seemed like Syracuse would run away with the game, UConn would come back behind Adams and Vital, and would trail 60-51, with less than nine minutes to go. Right then and there, the Orangemen started to unravel and the Huskies would get as close as eight, 62-54 with 6:49 to go after a free throw by redshirt junior Terry Larrier.
However, the Orangemen would stay in control of the game throughout, as they maintained a 10-point lead, 65-55, with 3:38 to go in the game. UConn wouldn’t stay down long, as a floater by Adams got them within seven, 68-61, with 1:15 to go. But the Orangemen would not relinquish this game as they would go on to win another game in this storied rivalry, which would give them their 56th victory in 94 games.
Battle led the Orange with 22 points and five steals, Moyer had 18 points and seven rebounds and Brissett added 16 points and 10 rebounds. For the Huskies, Adams led with 22 points and Vital added 17 points. Larrier added 12 points in the loss.
“I thought both teams played incredibly hard, aggressive basketball. A lot of missed shots, missed opportunities, some bad turnovers both ways, but both teams played as hard as you can play,” said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim.
When it came to defense, the Orange was the more dominant team throughout all 40 minutes. “Our defense was really active – our defense is generally a little better in the first half, a little more energy, a little more going in the first half. I thought our energy was really good. At halftime, it was a horrible disappointment – we should’ve been up 20, 22, 23 points and we just made bad turnovers and fouled them four times, they made free throws,” said Boeheim, “We just ended the half horribly. I thought we put ourselves in a really bad position. Once Tyus [Battle] got us going, that was the difference in the game really.”
On the UConn side, it was apparent that they struggled in other ways besides shooting from the three-point line. They struggled when it came to rebounding, which was shown when Moyer had three tip-in dunks in the game. Even though they showed some fight and got as close as seven in the latter stages of the second half, it just wasn’t enough to knock off their rivals.
“Two freshmen pretty much beat us tonight,” said UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, “Brissett was absolutely great, first offensive rebound. We talked about him all practice and keeping him off the board. Two freshmen beat us and they have two really good freshmen, but they aren’t that good. We have to do a better job understanding we can’t allow those guys to win a game against us. We did a good job on Howard, we knew Battle would get his points, but we can’t allow freshmen to take over the game.”
One of the main things that hindered the Huskies in the game was the turnovers of which they had thirteen in the first half, and fifteen overall. “I think we have to be a lot smarter with the ball, take our time and make the simple play,” said Adams.
But with a young team, the Huskies are bound to make mistakes. “Once again, we just dug ourselves too big of a hole. We didn’t come out with the defensive effort from the first half,” said Ollie, “They got offensive rebounds and one of our game plans was to keep them off the offensive rounds. We know they are a great offensive rebounding team, and we just got to establish that from the first part of the game. I thought in the second half we started getting stops, we got back in the game, but it was too late.”
As of now, the Orangemen are 7-1 in their season and UConn is now 6-3. This game was a nice stroll down memory lane for both fans as there was excitement that made it feel like the old days. But now that the game has come to a close, both programs must now prepare for the grind of conference play, which starts in a few weeks in their respective conferences.
But all in all, tonight was a good night to see an old rivalry be revisited in a venue in which both schools have had history. Will there be more battles between the two schools? Surely. But on this night, the Orangemen won the battle.