Sunday, December 4, 2016

Syracuse-UConn, 6 OT: A Retrospective

An exhibit on Madison Square Garden concourse honors Syracuse and UConn's 2009 Big East Tournament epic. (Photo by Jaden Daly/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

As Syracuse and Connecticut prepare to meet at Madison Square Garden Monday night, our Ray Floriani; who was on hand for their epic six-overtime confrontation at the "World's Most Famous Arena," looks back on the historic encounter by recounting his experience the night of March 12, 2009.

When you think Syracuse and UConn, you think of Hall of Fame coaches Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun. Storied programs with a legacy of excellence. Great players. Great matchups.

Certainly not to be forgotten is the meeting on March 12, 2009. Six overtimes. A classic experience on a classic night.
Monday, the two meet again at Madison Square Garden. Boeheim still roams the Syracuse sideline. Former UConn player and assistant to Calhoun Kevin Ollie leads the Huskies. The addresses have changed, Syracuse now in the ACC and UConn the American Athletic Conference. As they meet back on the Garden hardwood, certainly there will be reminiscence of that March evening.  
At the time, my full-time job was Guidance Director at Marylawn Academy in South Orange, New Jersey. Basketball, writing and officiating, was a part-time labor of love. That Thursday called for school. I was officiating girls’ lacrosse then and we had a mandatory 7 p.m. meeting in Millburn. As expected, the meeting got out by 8:15 and it was on the road.

One game would be better than none. Syracuse and UConn had the last of the four quarterfinal contests. I assured my wife Karen it would not be too late a night. Tipoff at 9:30, final buzzer at 11:30, interviews and home not too long after midnight. Little did I know those best made plans would be broken.
The trip to MSG, about 18 miles from Millburn, was traffic-free at that hour, even at the Lincoln Tunnel. I parked in a 24-hour (good call) lot by the Garden. After checking in, getting game notes and a press room coffee, it was time to head to the press table. I got to my seat as the teams broke huddle for the opening tipoff.

Early in the game during a media timeout, it was time for another coffee, one of what would be many. Getting back out to the floor, Bob Huggins, the West Virginia coach, took my seat to scout. “Ray, I didn’t know this was your seat,” he said. I told him to stay, as there were a few empty spots. He graciously deferred, taking one of those seats. I said thanks and congratulated him on a good game earlier in the night, while thinking this might not turn out like a normal evening.

The game itself was your prototypical UConn-Syracuse battle. No one could build a significant edge. The Huskies led by three at the half. It was knotted at 71 when Syracuse’s Eric Devendorf buried what might be the game-winning shot. It appeared to get off late and video study by the officiating crew confirmed it. Overtime. Neither team could get an edge. Or should it be said, UConn could not, because Syracuse never led an extra session until the very last.

Second overtime. Third overtime. During breaks between extra session, the Garden public address utilized the time for music to fit the scenario. We heard Wilson Pickett’s ‘In The Midnight Hour.’ Next was Paul Simon’s ‘Late in the Evening,’ both good choices, though I hoped to hear the Bobby Lewis classic ‘Tossing and Turning.’

After four overtimes, Bob Donato; who worked the game with fellow officials John Cahill and James Breeding, walked over to the scorer’s table. Donato’s smile seemed to exclaim a ‘WOW’ in its expression. No words were necessary. Keeping shot charts, I wanted to see how the perimeter shooting would be affected. The longer you play, fatigue takes its toll on the legs and shooters utilize that part of the body for their shooting. The perimeter game took a toll as expected, but each time someone would step to the fore, battle past fatigue and hit a big shot.

The press room coffee is gone by the fifth overtime, and a few of us on press row exchange high fives, kind of in celebration being part of all this. Finally, in the sixth extra session, Syracuse gets the lead and closes out a 127-117 victory. Passing the baseline to the press room, I snap a picture of the Syracuse dance team performing to their band. What song, I do not remember, but a glance at my watch said it was 1:20 a.m.
Jonny Flynn of Syracuse led all scorers with 34 points. A. J. Price paced UConn with 33.Paul Harris added 29 and 22 rebounds for the Orange while Kemba Walker of the Huskies struggled with only eight points on 4-of-18 shooting. In all, eight fouled out, four from each team.

Postgame interviews saw Calhoun, ever the competitor, in a somber mood. In his defense, you could also chalk it up to coming off a coaching marathon. I remember Boeheim jokingly saying Huggins, whose West Virginia team would face Syracuse in the semis, probably hoped for a few more overtimes to increase the Orange fatigue. I grabbed stats and passed the locker rooms, stopping to talk with Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine; a good friend at the time, to offer congratulations and add, “I don’t know if I should say good evening or good morning.”

The press room coffee is long gone. I exit MSG and thankfully, hit the road to no traffic at 2 a.m. I got home and wanted to get one story in. Quickly, I file a 250-word recap with NBE, a Big East blog. In my e-mail, I tell the editor a more lengthy report will come tomorrow and ‘you cannot believe what I just witnessed.’

Three hours of sleep later, it was off to school. Signing in, a few faculty members and students in the main office talk about the six-overtime game the night before and how they called it a night after two or three overtimes. One colleague said, “Ray, did you hear about that game?” My reply was: “Hear? I was there and covered it to the end.”

The day went fine, with lunch reserved to file reports with NBE and Rush the Court among others. That night, it was back to the Garden for the semis. We exchanged stories in the media room. Big East media coordinator John Paquette had a long list of tournament records broken by that game. Mike Waters, a Syracuse beat writer, was not alone, saying he did not exit MSG until about 4 a.m. Lou Monaco, still doing work for the Newark Star-Ledger, said he took the train home after the second overtime. By the time he got to Springfield, about 20 miles away, he said a bar was closed, but he passed by and saw the cleaning crew had the game in progress still on. Pre-semifinal talk in the press room was dominated by the classic of less than 24 hours earlier.

I still had my stat sheet with tempo free numbers and notes scribbled. Heading to the floor, I saw the Syracuse dance team finishing warmups. I commended them on a great job last night and asked them to autograph the stat sheet, which they enthusiastically did.

Syracuse would defeat West Virginia in overtime. The fates did not play a cruel joke, as this was only one extra session. Postgame, Boeheim included some anecdotes of the night before joking that his team looked for a place to eat after the UConn game, but no one was open unlike Syracuse, a 24-hour city.

A few weeks later, the Syracuse bookstore sold shirts with the numbers (points, 226 minutes, 6 overtimes, ‘2 days and one for the ages’) commemorating that night. I felt I earned one covering it, so I treated myself to one. I still have the shirt, and have used it as an officiating warmup.

Syracuse's commemorative T-shirt, signifying six-overtime win over UConn in Big East quarterfinal. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Almost forgotten in that 2009 tournament, Syracuse did not win it. They fell to Louisville in the championship. That fact is virtually forgotten in the captivating experience of that six-overtime game, a game captivating those watching at home or at an establishment. A game not just watched, but experienced; and in some ways played, by all those fortunate to be in attendance.

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