HARTFORD — The last word was loud. The last word was emphatic. The last word had the devastating effect, elicited that unmistakably sullen silence that makes the last word so satisfying.
And in this storied, intense and always emotional college men's basketball rivalry, the last word belonged to UConn.
Syracuse is leaving the Big East with, as both Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun chortled, "with the taste of UConn in their mouth," the result of the Huskies' 66-58 victory before 13,518 at the XL Center on Wednesday night.
In a season with no postseason, this was as good a defining statement as UConn, even more shorthanded than before, could make, beating the sixth-ranked team in The Associated Press poll, leading most of the way.
"They can ban us from the postseason," coach Kevin Ollie said, "they can ban us from the Big East tournament. But they can't ban us from getting better. They can't ban us from loving each other. We're the purest team out there, we're not playing for the postseason, we're playing for the love of the game, for the love of UConn and for each other."
The Huskies (17-6, 7-4 in the Big East) actually still have something tangible in their sights. This win put them in the middle of a wild race for first place in the league. Syracuse (20-4, 8-3), especially once UConn suspended its tallest player, Enosch Wolf, following an arrest Monday morning, seemed certain to overmatch the Huskies this time.
The Orangemen's zone defense, as expected, forced UConn to take and make three-point shots to win, and they made 8 of 14. Boatright scored 17 points and Calhoun 15, both making three from long range. Boatright's three-pointer at the first-half buzzer gave UConn a 29-24 lead, its biggest to that point. Syracuse grabbed the lead a couple of times in the second half, but Calhoun hit a three-pointer to put the Huskies ahead to stay 45-42 with 10:08 to play and Boatright, grabbing a loose ball, went in for the dunk to make it 47-42. When Niels Giffey made two free throws with 3:43 left, UConn led by 10.
"It's great to play on a team where everybody just wants to win," said Shabazz Napier, who had 10 points and seven assists, including an alley-oop pass to Boatright in what is becoming a signature play. "Nobody cares who scores the most points. I certainly believed we were going to win. I think we're a great team – 17-6, that's a great team right there."
By then, the XL Center was as loud as any UConn crowd has been this year, and, at times, doing the wave. "The crowd really pushed us through," Ollie said. "Hopefully, our fans saw our heart and our dedication out there tonight."
UConn's defense was disruptive enough to take Syracuse out of its game. Michael Carter-Williams, who was averaging 8.5 assists per game, had only one, though he scored 15. Syracuse shot 35 percent, and made 4 of 23 three-point attempts – senior Brandon Triche was 0 for 7. And UConn outrebounded Syracuse 38 to 36, with freshman Phil Nolan taking the 14 minutes Wolf would've played and grabbing five. DeAndre Daniels had eight.
"UConn has proven they're a good basketball team," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "They've play hard, they've play together – all year. They made all the big shots in the second half."
The Huskies moved the ball side-to-side against Syracuse's extended zone defense, getting into the middle and then back out to open three-point shooters, or, occasionally, less-than open. But the Huskies shot 45.8 percent from the floor, and that was enough.
"They made 8 of 14 threes," Boeheim said, "and nobody has shot that well against us in a while. We didn't shoot very well."
Former UConn coach Jim Calhoun arrived early to chat with Boeheim, perhaps reminiscing over the classic games these two teams have played. In the Big East, Syracuse finishes with a 39 to 33 edge. But UConn, after losing three times to Syracuse last season, savored this one. As time ran out, Boatright worried the fans might rush the court.
"The big games we face, we call them our championship games," Boatright said, "because we can't go to the postseason."
Giffey, who had nine points and five rebounds in 25 minutes, said, "It was our energy level and our passion. We overcame a bunch of challenges and changed our game a little bit."
And Ollie, who took over for Calhoun in September, adds this jewel to the upset of Michigan State on Nov. 9 and the victory at Notre Dame on Jan. 12 as unexpected achievements in a memorable first season.
"With all the obstacles," Ollie said, "there are always opportunities behind those obstacles. Once again, the [players] fought all obstacles and made it through and came out with a fantastic win."Copyright © 2015, RedEye