Two veteran Big East heavyweight hoops programs met Wednesday for a final bout before conference realignment reshapes their historic rivalry forever. After decades of thrilling title chases and Hall of Fame coaching matchups, UConn closed the chapter by delivering a knockout blow to Syracuse on its home court in Hartford.
The Huskies (17-6, 7-4 Big East) rode the hot hand of freshman Omar Calhoun to a 66-58 victory over the Orange, a longstanding conference foe that says goodbye to the Big East before next season. Syracuse (20-4, 8-3 Big East) bolts for the ACC in July but is currently among the conference's top contenders for the No. 1 seed in the Big East postseason tournament.
Connecticut is banned from 2013 postseason play due to substandard Academic Progress Rate scores, so no matter how the remainder of the regular season pans out, this was the final conference showdown between UConn and Syracuse. The Huskies, stripped of any opportunity to chase down trophies, have played with pride under first-year head coach Kevin Ollie all season.
By swatting away Syracuse Wednesday, Connecticut dealt the Orange a parting gift that instantly stings Jim Boeheim's squad in the Big East standings.The Orange squandered an opportunity to surge into first place at 9-2 and instead fall back into a five-way tie in the win column.
An era defined by matchups between Big East coaching titans Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim ended with Ollie's team on the right side of the scoreboard. Three Huskies scored in double-digits and Connecticut led for the final 9:49 of the second half.
Ollie, who inked a five-year contract extension in December, has guided his Huskies to five wins in the last six conference contests. Since starting 2-3 in Big East action, UConn is on a roll and the school's faith in its young head coach looks justified.
Of course it was Ollie's predecessor and former coach, three-time national champion Jim Calhoun, who helped establish this nationally recognized rivalry while matching wits with Boeheim over the years. The two won a total of 14 Big East titles and reached seven Final Fours.
Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams (15 points, four steals) and Huskies freshman Omar Calhoun (three second-half three pointers) came up big for their respective squads tonight. Over the years, we've watched some of the country's greatest basketball players battle for Big East supremacy each time these teams meet.
Carmelo Anthony, Ray Allen, Pearl Washington, Richard Hamilton, Derrick Coleman and Emeka Okafor are just a few of the future NBA fixtures who once shined bright on the big stage of this historic rivalry.
Generations of basketball fans have been treated to some of the game's most dramatic moments in recent memory. The March 2009 matchup that lasted six overtimes is one of many stunning finishes that fill a series approaching 100 games.
For now, with no scheduled meeting in sight, all we have is what went down Wednesday. Syracuse is on the verge of leaving for the "greener pastures" of the ACC, but tonight the Huskies reminded Boeheim and Orange faithful that the road to a Big East championship runs through Hartford.