The UConn Huskies pulled off a rather unexpected victory against an old rival at Madison Square Garden, prevailing over the Syracuse Orange, 52-50.
Going into this one, all projections favored the Orange. Given that other zone defenses had given UConn fits, it was a bit terrifying to think what a team which uses the 2-3 zone as its principal strategy would do to a struggling Husky offense. Syracuse had also been doing quite well from the three-point line.
But both teams performed poorly offensively on the evening—UConn shot 30% from the field while the Orange hit just 26% of their shots. Luckily, the Husky defense clamped down late—Syracuse scored just six points in the final nine minutes of the game—while overcoming a double-digit deficit to earn the win. Although, once again, some missed foul shots by UConn forced this game to go down to the wire.
The game started with very poor shooting from both sides. The Huskies were at least getting pretty solid looks against the Syracuse zone, but baskets just weren’t falling. For a team that had been looking lost offensively, this was an improvement of sorts. An ugly, back-and-forth first half ended with the Orange ahead 23-21.
Syracuse came out strong in the second half, building an 11-point lead seven minutes in as UConn shot 1-of-9 from the field coming out of the break. But this team, as it has all season, showed great heart in the way it battled back.
Down nine with nine minutes left, Rodney Purvis hit a three which kick-started a 14-0 run. Jalen Adams scored six points in that run on his way to 16 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds on the night while playing the entire game. Purvis hit another three during that run as well, finishing with a game-high 21 points to go along with seven rebounds and three assists.
Freshman Christian Vital didn’t have his best performance but his two points made the Queens Village, NY native the hero of the game.
With time winding down, UConn allowed Andrew White to hit a three-pointer to tie it up with 12 seconds remaining. The Huskies flew up the court to try to pull ahead but a Rodney Purvis three-point attempt clanged off the front of the rim and it appeared we were going to overtime. Undeterred, Vital grabbed the offensive rebound and got a shot up, drawing a foul with 2.2 seconds left.
Vital hit both free throws while a chorus of boos rained down from the Syracuse fans in attendance, which was pretty remarkable for a freshman playing in his hometown arena in front of family and a lot of friends. Syracuse couldn’t get a shot off and the final buzzer rang with the Huskies on top.
It was an incredible battle, either team could have won, but Kevin Ollie’s squad showed a lot of resilience in this one where very few were giving them much of a chance. Kentan Facey had another solid outing, grabbing 13 rebounds and scoring seven points despite battling an illness.
UConn did miss five straight free throws in the final two minutes before Vital hit those game-winners, which is disappointing, to say the least. Free throws will inevitably haunt the Huskies in a loss at some point this season if this isn’t corrected. There are other concerns but for now, take joy in a great win over a heated rival in an amazing venue on national television which the fans, players, and coaches can all savor.
The Huskies will be back in action next on Saturday against Ohio State at 6 p.m. The road game will be televised on the Big Ten Network. They will meet Syracuse again at MSG for the Jimmy V Classic in 2017.