Monday, December 5, 2016

UConn defense, Garden magic join forces for Huskies in win over Syracuse

Christian Vital celebrates after two free throws in final seconds, his sole points on the night, give UConn a dramatic win over Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by University of Connecticut Athletics)

NEW YORK -- There would be no overtime on this night, but just as many twists, turns and heart palpitations that were induced by the six extra sessions played between Connecticut and Syracuse in their 2009 Big East Tournament epic.

Much like that all-time classic, this one came down to the wire as well, with freshman Christian Vital; who had been scoreless on the night until stepping to the foul line with 2.2 seconds remaining in regulation, providing the final margin by sinking both free throws to give UConn a 52-50 victory over the 22nd-ranked Orange and cementing his name into the latest chapter of an illustrious and timeless rivalry.

"I had the older guys help me out," Vital said, recounting his mindset in between drawing a foul on Tyus Battle and stepping to the charity stripe. "That timeout actually helped me more than it helped them, because it gave me a chance to get talked to by the older guys and get calmed down. I was able to knock them down and we won the game."

For most of the evening, it seemed that although a magical finish was brewing, it was not going to come down to the rookie guard. The Huskies (4-4) slogged their way through a first half that saw them shoot just 26 percent from the floor and make only seven field goals, one more than Syracuse, who took a 23-21 lead into the locker room at the intermission on a weak side layup by DaJuan Coleman (10 points, 16 rebounds) that barely beat the horn.

The Orange (5-3) bolstered their advantage out of the gate to open the final stanza, using a 14-5 run to obtain their largest cushion of the game, a 37-26 lead with 13:10 on the clock. As UConn fought fire with fire, using the 2-3 zone defense made famous by Syracuse to combat the length of their opponents, their offense came to life at the most opportune time on the strength of a 23-7 spurt. 

Rodney Purvis, whose 21 points led all scorers, gave the Huskies the lead for good with 6:18 to play; draining a three-pointer that UConn would follow with four points in succession from Jalen Adams to turn a double-digit deficit that looked insurmountable in the face of their anemic offense into a 49-44 lead at the 2:58 mark of the second half.

"We just played tough," said Purvis of the team mentality, even in the face of adversity. "Once we got down, Coach said we would get back in the game."

"We were just thirsty for the opportunity and we were just hungry to hit," head coach Kevin Ollie interjected. "We were in the huddle and we were believing."

So too was Syracuse, at least for the final few minutes of regulation. After a Coleman basket brought the Orange within three, the team that bills itself as New York's College Team took advantage of the Huskies missing two field goals and five free throws down the stretch to make one last run. Following an Adams free throw that gave UConn a 50-47 lead, a deep, NBA-range triple from Andrew White III knotted the proceedings at 50 with nine ticks remaining. Purvis attempted a shot for the win from beyond the arc that misfired, but Vital was able to secure the rebound and draw the aforementioned foul on Battle, bringing a crowd of 15,347 to a crescendo they had reached many times before, some in this very building.

"I definitely had a lot of nerves," Vital reiterated. "A lot of people talk about how we have a young team, but we also have a lot of experienced guys. They talked to me in that timeout and said, 'Listen, we're in your city. Take us home.' I was able to do that."

Syracuse had one final opportunity, having to travel the length of the floor and hope for a miracle to either tie or win, but Purvis stole Tyler Lydon's baseball pass at the buzzer, sealing the latest thriller between two longtime adversaries whose rivalry still runs deep despite being fractured by conference realignment.

"I'll take this win no matter what we shot from the field," Ollie remarked, nonchalantly dismissing the Huskies' 31 percent effort, which was masked ever so slightly by holding Syracuse to an even more meager 26 percent (14-for-54) in the winning cause. "We played good defense. It was another one of those epic UConn-Syracuse battles, and I'm glad we came out on the winning side."

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