The American Athletic Conference Tournament starts Thursday as UConn faces SMU in the opening round. After such a disappointing season, the only way the Huskies can make the NCAA Tournament is by winning the conference tournament. And although that’s unlikely, the Huskies have had so many great moments in conference tournaments over the years that it would be irresponsible to say they couldn’t pull off a miracle again. So here, chronologically, is the official list of great UConn moments at the conference tournament, both in the Big East and the AAC.
The Huskies’ first-ever game at a conference tournament. In the inaugural Big East tourney, UConn beat a Boston College team featuring future lottery pick (and good NBA point guard) John Bagley. Beating BC and ending the Eagles’ season? Pretty good start.
It took a little while for UConn to find success at the Big East Tournament again, but once Jim Calhoun’s squad figured it out, the winning never stopped. The 1989-90 season became known as the “Dream Season” among UConn fans, thanks to a great regular season, a 1-seed at the NCAA Tournament, an all-time great buzzer beater, and a run through March Madness that only ended in overtime at the Elite Eight at the hands of all-time sports villain Christian Laettner, whose name shall be cursed into all eternity.
But it all started with UConn’s first Big East Tournament championship after a 65-60 win over Georgetown in the semifinals, and an exciting three-point victory over Syracuse in the final, where the Orange had a bit of a blowup late in the game.
Six years later, UConn earned its second Big East Tournament title with one of its best teams ever, led by the soon-to-be Hall of Famer Ray Allen. The Huskies entered the tournament with the one-seed, having lost only one game in conference play during the season. As expected, they had little trouble in the first two tournament games, easily dispatching a Seton Hall team led by Dan Hurley (yes, that Dan Hurley) and Syracuse again, this time featuring John Wallace in the star role.
The big one, though, was the tournament final against Georgetown in one of the most-hyped college games of the 1990s. Allen was a superstar, of course, later picked fifth in a stacked NBA Draft that summer. The first overall pick, and already a Hall of Famer, was Georgetown’s point guard Allen Iverson.
Ray averaged 23.4 points per game that season. AI averaged 25. Georgetown was ranked 6th overall. UConn was ranked 3rd. Not only did the game have huge implications for both teams, but this was the individual matchup of the season, and one of the biggest star battles of the entire decade.
Neither played their best game, with UConn’s Allen scoring 17 points, and Georgetown’s Allen scoring only 13. But in a tense, back-and-forth game, UConn went on a 12-0 run to close the came, ending when Ray Allen hit the game-winning shot over Iverson to give UConn a one-point lead. On the other end, Ricky Moore forced Iverson into a tough shot, which he missed, and the putback effort rimmed out. If it wasn’t for that thing with the Heat against the Spurs, this might be the crowning moment of Allen’s entire career, but he’ll just have to settle for hitting two of the most famous shots in basketball history.
UConn won its third Big East Tournament in 1998. Winning three games over Providence (led by Jamel Thomas, probably better known as Sebastian Telfair’s brother), Rutgers (a bad team, as always), and Syracuse in the final. The core of this Husky team, including current director of operations for the program Kevin Freeman, would go on to do big things.
The run to UConn’s first national championship started with a successful defense of the Big East title. Again, this wasn’t an especially significant tournament, as the Huskies narrowly avoided being upset by Seton Hall in the first round, then easily beat Syracuse and stomped out the last great St. John’s team in the final.
A pair of great moments went down in 2002, with the first one occurring in UConn’s first game of the tournament, as Ben Gordon hit a game-winning three with 12 seconds left to beat Villanova by two points in the quarterfinals.
The final was one of the most thrilling games in UConn history, as the Huskies beat a tough Pittsburgh team in double overtime, with each period finishing in a tense moment. At the end of regulation, Emeka Okafor somehow missed a contested putback for probably the last time in his life (don’t double-check me on this), and at the end of the first overtime, Brandin Knight hit the front of the rim on a half-court attempt, missing a victory by about an inch.
The biggest surprise, though, came with about 35 seconds left in the second overtime, when Taliek Brown—who made 17 threes in four years at UConn—drained a 35-footer as the shot clock ran out to clinch the game for the Huskies.
Just two years later, UConn won its sixth Big East championship, again against Pittsburgh, again in a close one. The Panthers led by 11 points in a low-scoring game with just eight minutes left, but the Huskies went on a 21-7 run to finish the game, as Gordon and Rashad Anderson hit a series of big shots, with Gordon hitting a floater to put UConn ahead for good with half a minute left.
Six overtimes. Enough said.
Funnily enough, in the past I’ve had some Syracuse friends try to rub this game in, but as someone who was lucky enough to be in attendance at Madison Square Garden that night, after about the fourth overtime, I’d say most UConn fans got to the point where we wouldn’t have had our spirits crushed with a loss. The Huskies did enough to make sure they got the #1 seed, and about half the UConn rotation had fouled out, so it wasn’t a big loss, just a great moment that enters college basketball (and UConn) lore forever. Plus, as the quarterfinals of a tournament they didn’t win, it qualifies as one of the Orange’s best victories of the decade.
Of course, UConn went to the Final Four in 2009 while Syracuse got dunked on so hard by Blake Griffin that he actually hit his head on the backboard, so that was nice.
FIVE WINS IN FIVE DAYS! I still get worked up. Let’s take them one by one.
In the first round, 9-seed UConn beat DePaul, on account of it being DePaul. Kemba Walker scored 26 points. None of this was even remotely surprising.
In the second round, UConn beat a good Georgetown team pretty handily, as Kemba scored 28 points. This wasn’t a huge surprise, as earlier in the season, Kemba tossed an assist to himself off the backboard from the three-point line, and I think the Hoyas were still crushed by that. This has nothing to do with the conference tournament, I just really like that clip.
The game everybody remembers was the quarterfinal win over Pittsburgh, where Kemba shook poor Gary McGhee so hard that his ankles had to be replaced with titanium joints.
Then in the semi-final, Kemba scored 33 points as UConn beat Syracuse in another overtime game, though UConn led the whole way in overtime, and would have won in regulation if not for a miracle Scoop Jardine three at the end of the second half.
And perhaps the best game of the entire run was the championship against Louisville that gave the Huskies their seventh conference title, when UConn completed a comeback by taking the lead with 30 seconds left on a quick drive and nifty assist from Kemba.
2012 was only a short tournament run for UConn, but it was still enough to give them this cool moment on a furious comeback led by Shabazz Napier, who stole the ball from West Virginia on two straight possessions, as the Huskies beat the Mountaineers in overtime in the second round of the Big East Tournament.
The most recent entry on this list is another one well-known among UConn fans, as Jalen Adams buried a three-quarter-court buzzer beater to send a quarterfinal matchup with Cincinnati into a fourth overtime, where the Huskies finally won. For understandable reasons, this isn’t as remembered, but Adams also had to hit a circus layup at the end of the second overtime to tie it up too.
That’s the canonical list of great UConn moments at the Big East and AAC Tournaments. With luck, they’ll be able to add another great win to this list in the following week... or maybe sometime in the future.