New York— Connecticut has survived the first two days of the annual Big East postseason marathon at MSG. The 16 teams of the conference were engaging in the annual battle to determine which of the colleges will be sending teams to the “big dance”. Madison Square Garden is hosting the prestigious event for the 30th consecutive year.
The noon game was a repeat of last year’s opening contest between the ninth seed, UConn, and the 16th seed, DePaul. Although last year’s tournament MVP, Kemba Walker, is now playing in the NBA with the Charlotte Bobcats, the result was the same. Connecticut raised its postseason winning streak to 12 games by defeating the Blue Demons, 81-67.
The Huskies led, 46-33, at the half on the strength of almost doubling the shooting percentage of the Blue Demons from the floor, .548 to .286. Connecticut began the second half with a 15-4 run to take a 61-37 lead with 14:47 on the clock. The Blue Demons did not throw in the towel at that point, but put together a 14-3 scoring run to cut the deficit in half, 63-51 with 11:09 remaining. The above .500 shooting by the Huskies in the second half allowed them to maintain the advantage.
Sophomore Jeremy Lamb paced the Huskies with 25 points. An important contributor was freshman Ryan Boatright who came off the bench to score 19 and dish seven assists. Boatright, a native of a Chicago suburb spoke about his thoughts, “When I came out today, I just tried to do the best for the team, so when I came in an get the start by playing defense, the offense came to me.”
Coach Jim Calhoun was only coaching his second game since his recent illness. In speaking about the possibility of another tournament run of the table like last year, Lamb said, “We had a great win, and then coming into the Big East tournament just got another good win. Coach came back, so there are a lot of things that go into it. But, yeah, I can say we’re getting momentum.”
Lamb was correct as the momentum carried UConn to success in game two against the #8 seed, West Virginia. The teams of veteran coaches Bob Huggins and Jim Calhoun batted fiercely in the first half. Control of the offensive boards gave the Mountaineers the opportunity to take the halftime lead, 30-26.
West Virginia maintained the advantage throughout most of the second half. The lead was raised to a game-high 11 points late in the half. A scoring run by the Huskies tied the score at 63 with 2:10 on the clock. Each team scored two additional points in regulation.
The Huskies defense dominated the five minutes of overtime. The Mountaineers missed all 11 shots from the floor. They only managed two free throws. Connecticut’s one basket, a three was sufficient to gain the victory. The Huskies also sank three from the charity stripe for a 71-67 win and the opportunity to meet the 2nd ranked team in the nation, Syracuse, in the quarter-finals on Thursday.
The victory was the seventh straight in the Big East tournament for Connecticut and its 13th consecutive in the postseason
Despite the disparity in records this year, the battle between the two Jims (Calhoun and Boeheim) may be closer than anticipated by most observers. Three of their last four encounters in the Big East tournament were decided in overtime.
After the contest, Calhoun was asked if he believes Connecticut can defeat all Big East opposition as it did last year. He replied, “I don’t think it can happen again, but then again, I said it could never happen in the first place…would we like to take a stab at it? Everybody out there would. We’re just going to try to play tomorrow’s basketball game to take it where it may…We’re thinking about we’re playing one of the best, in my opinion, along with Kentucky, the best team in the country tomorrow.”
The Huskies showing in games one and two has probably gained its admittance to the NCAA National Tournament that will begin later in March. A good showing, win or lose, against Syracuse can only improve its seeding.
The contest was the final one in Big East competition for West Virginia. The Mountaineers will join the Big 12 next year.