clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Five days later, Huskies on top of the world

I want to post every single photo on our wires here.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
I want to post every single photo on our wires here. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Getty Images

In the 25 years Jim Calhoun has stewarded the UConn program, there has been no shortage of magical moments.

There's the Dream Season, The Shot, shocking of the world, Rip's buzzer-beater, Taliek's miracle 3-pointer and so many, many more.

None may be better than this.

Hell, few moments in the hundred years of college basketball history could match what the Huskies have accomplished in just five days at Madison Square Garden.

With a thrilling 69-66 victory over Louisville Saturday, one that earned them a record-tying seventh Big East tournament championship, the Huskies capped off quite possibly the greatest run the NCAA has ever seen.

Not only did UConn, the No. 9 seed after finishing conference play with as many losses (nine) as wins, somehow muster the endurance, stamina, strength and heart just to play in five games in five days, they were able to reel off five straight victories, with the final four coming against opponents ranked in the top 25 of the AP poll.

Which only becomes more impressive when you consider where the Huskies were just one week ago. (Or, as I like to think of it, two days B.K. -- Before Kembamazing.)

And all they had been through, both on and off the court, this season.

Although still ranked nationally -- moreso a symbol of what the team could've been than what it actually was -- UConn had lost its direction long before ending its regular season with its seventh loss in 11 games. Playing in a stacked conference likely to send 11 team to the Dance skews it some, but the Huskies still weren't in the upper half of its own league, and were relegated to playing on the first day of this week's tournament with the DePauls and Providences of the world -- far from the type of team the program has previously equated with March runs at MSG.

In fact, all of the Huskies' first five conference tournament championship teams had also won the regular-season honor. (The only other that didn't? The 2004 team, which did some other good things.) Even the Dream Season team had proven itself before making its tournament magic, winning the Big East regular-season title before taking the 1990 tourney with a three-point win over Syracuse.

And none had to deal with the off-the-court turmoil that has engulfed the university over the past two years, with Calhoun and the program fending off the final aftermath of the 2009 Yahoo! report as recently as two weeks ago.

But in just five days, all that has changed.

In just five days, the Huskies won a game for each consecutive year in which they left MSG in March without a victory.

In just five days, they nearly doubled the amount of wins against then-ranked opponents they had accumulated through 30 regular-season games (five).

In just five days, they won more games than they did the entire month of February,

In just five days, they've gone from near helpless to the epitome of hope.

At this point, the NCAA tournament (for which UConn is projected to land a No. 2 seed and is likely to be picked as one of the favorites by bracket-bettors everywhere) seems like an afterthought.

Especially after capping its miracle run with a win against a team better than anyone it might see before the Elite Eight.

Louisville had almost every on-paper edge you could think of. One of the best defenses in the country (No. 4 in AdjDE), the Cardinals were fast enough and talented enough to run the transition-happy Huskies into the ground, much like they did in the previous meeting, a 71-58 blowout win at The Bucket almost a month earlier.

But it was UConn, not the third-seeded Cards (winners of six of their past seven coming into the matchup), that seemed to be most in control Saturday.

Unlike in the three game prior, the Huskies jumped out fast, going step for step with Louisville as it attempted to push the pace to put together perhaps their best start of the season. UConn took a 10-point lead with nine-plus to play in the first half and held onto a six-point advantage at the half.

The Huskies swould soon run out of gas, missing 14 straight attempts from the floor over six-plus minutes that allowed the Cards to retake the lead around the 15-minute mark in the second. But, like they have all season, they found a way.

Once again, UConn faltered from the floor, shooting just 41.8% from the field and 27.3% from 3. But it fought through by following its go-to recipe of battling on the boards (31 total, one more than Louisville), winning the turnover battle (14-16), running (just four fast-break points but 19 points off of turnovers) and, of course, getting to the line.

Free-throw shooting hasn't been an advantage most Calhoun-coached teams have enjoyed -- even the good ones. Since 2003 (which is as far back as KenPom goes), the Huskies had never cracked the top 50 in FT%, topping out at 72 pct in 2007(arguably the worst team in that span). But these Huskies, who shoot just 49.1 eFG% (No. 211 nationally), thrive at the line, with the 24th-best FT% in the country (75.5%). And did so again Saturday.

UConn took 23 attempts from the line against Louisville -- 13 more than the Cards -- and coverted on all but three of them. And it wasn't just Walker's star power eliciting the calls. While Louisville kept firing away from 3 -- 25 attempts in all, 43% of their shots from the field -- the Huskies, running on fumes, kept trying to take it to the hole, shooting just 11 of their shots from 3 (20% of their attempts) and scoring 34 of their 69 points in the paint (six more than Louisville).

And most importantly, they hit them when it mattered most.

Up just one with 16 seconds to play after a Shabazz Napier steal forced by Jeremy Lamb's stilt arms, Walker made both freebies to go up three. And after Mike Marra and his collection of sick tattoos missed the second of three FTs after a foulish Kemba foul that could've forced another overtime, Napier sank both of his attempts to seal the win.

Forever cementing their place in UConn lore.

We've seen better talent, better results, better teams before, even as recent as two years ago. But it's been sometime since we've been part of such a spectacle, a moment that we'll remember decades from now. Even though the 2008-09 team was by far my favorite team in sports history, I'm hard-pressed, two years later, to recall a specific event that truly defined that season, that feeling.

Having risen among the college basketball bluebloods,  flashback-worthy moments are now more likely to come from losses, or post-game tirades. The Huskies haven't been able to shock the world and defy the odds because, well, the odds are usually for them.

Now, we have that moment.

And with just a little more March magic, we might have so much more.

But for now, a lifetime's worth of memories in just five days will have to do.