UConn entered Madison Square Garden with no expectations.
Having lost not only seven of its past 11 but also its direction and purpose amidst a seemingly dead-end season, a defeat at the hands of even lowly DePaul in Tuesday's opening round wouldn't have been a total shock. The Huskies' Dance ticket had already been punched; there was simply no motivation, especially since anything more than a win or two, it seemed, was about all they could muster
But here they are, four days later, a completely different team than the one that first entered the gates of the world's most famous arena.
With a 76-71 victory over Syracuse in overtime (yes, another one), UConn now has four victories in as many days, with three coming against ranked opponents - more than half the amount it had prior to entering the Big East tournament (five).
Yet, it's not just the results. Sure, becoming the first team in conference postseason history to win five games in five days would be a nice reward for a team devoid of any truly meaningful accomplishment in over a month.
But it's the aura and sense of confidence that now oozes out of this team that truly makes you a believer.
It's the bravado Kemba Walker flaunts in the face of opponents after breaking the Big East tournament points record and finishing the day with 33 points, 12 rebounds, six steals and five assists. It's Jeremy Lamb (11 points) and Alex Oriakhi (15 points, 11 rebounds) looking as though they can be counted on, regardless of the holes that still exist in their games. It's players like Tyler Olander (seven points, six rebounds) far exceeding expectations, if only for just one game.
Most of all, it's the feeling that this team just has it.
Whatever it is.
That may not be enough to automatically anoint UConn the Big East tournament champion -- especially with a Lousville team with two wins already over the Huskies on deck Saturday -- or allot anyone the ammo to begin making wild national champion proclamations. But it's enough to finally feel good about this team's chances, regardless of the situation.
It proved as much tonight, defeating the one team with the one defense that appeared perfect for ending any further miraculous moments.
But it wasn't an easy sell.
The Orange leaped out to a 10-4 advantage to start the game, with the Huskies -- once again confounded by the dreaded 2-3 zone -- shooting just 1-for-5 before the first TV timeout with just over 15 minutes to play.
Same old Huskies.
But UConn struck back. By getting to the line (UConn had 28 total free-throw attempts, seven more than its season average) and turning the Orange's myriad first-half misses into open looks the other way - a similar strategy to the one it used to slay top-seeded Pittsburgh a day earlier - the Huskies pulled within one seven minutes later, and claimed their first lead three minutes thereafter.
The Huskies were in the driver's seat virtually from then on ... until the waning seconds, when UConn's comfortable six-point lead with 25 seconds to play was quickly eviscerated by two Scoop Jackson 3-pointers.
Same old Huskies.
However, UConn would never trail in overtime, and took the lead for good with a pair of Lamb floaters and some predictably (un)timely free-throw shooting from Kris Joseph.
These aren't the same old Huskies. They're not ones that seemingly conceded any real shot at making a run at a national title a long time ago.
Things still aren't as pretty as you'd like; the Huskies shot just 40.9 eFG% for the game (27.6 eFG% alone in an ugly first half) and 23.5% from behind the arc. But after relying on Walker so much for so long, they are finally able to give him the help he deserves.
Against a stifling Syracuse zone, the 16th best in adjusted defense, the Huskies got serviceable ball movement and took advantage of open looks created by top-of-the-key penetration and their go-to high 5-1 pick-and-roll. The ball still stopped at times and finished with four times as many 3-point misses and 3-point makes. ... But there's finally enough there to hang with the best of the Big East once again.
UConn now looks like a team.
A damn good one.