– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — There is no place more apropos for an early laboratory experiment to test the restoration project of the Connecticut men’s basketball program than the hallowed hardwood of Madison Square Garden, and, now led by a scion of basketball royalty in the New York City area, the Huskies turned back the clock on Thursday night, looking once more like the imperious program that ruled the during the halcyon days of the Big East Conference and reigned as the basketball scourge of the Northeast.
New head coach Dan Hurley earned his first significant victory with the Huskies as guards Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert each scored 16 points while reserve forward Eric Cobb posted a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds in Connecticut’s 83-76 victory over ancient rival Syracuse in the semifinals of the 2K Empire Classic benefiting Wounded Warrior Project. Connecticut advances to tomorrow’s championship game, where it will take on the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Jubilant memories of winning Big East championships and national titles — the most recent national championship coming in 2014 — had quickly devolved into images of unacceptable mediocrity, a malaise that included consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the end of Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Calhoun’s first season in Storrs in 1987 and eventually cost erstwhile head coach Kevin Ollie his job at the end of last season. In steps Hurley, coming over from a more successful program in recent years in New England, the University of Rhode Island, to infuse the program with his Jersey City swag and basketball toughness. All of those intangibles spilled over onto the court against the Orange, as almost every successful drive to the basket, three-pointer swished or dive to the floor seemed to imbue each player in white with as much energy as Hurley brings to the floor every game.
“Anytime you get a chance to play a rivalry game in The Garden, just obviously an excellent atmosphere to play in and these guys really raised their games,” said Hurley. “They got a look the last couple of days and they couldn’t wait to get here and play. They went out and performed on such a high level.”
Barely resembling the 14-18 outfit from last season that was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play, Connecticut made easy work of Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone for most of the game, exploiting it with drives to the basket and crisp, tic-tac-toe passing that led to open three-point looks. The Huskies made 12 of their 21 three-point attempts, including eight threes in the second half to fend off a couple of Syracuse rallies. Gilbert made four from beyond the arc, including a 30-foot deep three with the shot clock expiring to extend Connecticut’s lead to 73-66 with 2:26 remaining. On the next possession, Adams hit a three from the corner to push the lead at double digits, effectively ending the competitive nature of the contest.
“When you get a chance to play against a top-25 team and get to prove a lot of people wrong, there’s nothing better than that,” said Adams, a senior guard who was a member of UConn’s last NCAA Tournament team in 2015-16. “So once we got out onto the court in this great arena, I don’t know, the energy was just there for me right out of the gate.”
That energy also manifested itself under the glass as Connecticut out-rebounded the Orange 46-32, with seven of Cobb’s 13 rebounds coming on the offensive glass (and five of the offensive caroms coming in the second half alone).
“[Connecticut] played harder,” said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. “We’re not that kid of team, we don’t go after it. They have tougher guys and we have to be tougher. But our centers just totally got pushed around tonight. And we can’t do that.”
Though Syracuse played shorthanded, with starting point guard Frank Howard out due to a lower leg injury suffered in the preseason, its main two scorers, Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett, combined to shoot just 10-for-32 from the field, with Battle scoring 16 points and Brissett scoring only nine as he missed 12 of his 15 shot attempts.
Syracuse’s freshmen were responsible for keeping the Orange in the game, with guard Jalen Carey leading all scorers with 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Another freshman guard, Elijah Hughes, went for 15 points while making three 3-pointers.
“[Jalen] played great,” Boeheim said. “He played way better than we had any expectation for him to play.”
As with almost most of their contests played in New York City, the Syracuse-Connecticut rivalry once again created an atmosphere resembling a Big East Tournament semifinal or final, with the large numbers of Huskies’ supporters able to drown out the typical horde of orange-clad Syracuse fans that perpetually makes its presence felt at The World’s Most Famous Arena. The electricity in the building only added to the urgency that Connecticut’s players had possessed since the day of Hurley’s arrival, quickly wanting to expunge the memories of the past couple of seasons to reclaim its once lofty perch in college basketball.
“It’s been like six or seven hard months together,” Hurley said about the beginning of his head coaching tenure with the Huskies. “We’ve been getting after it pretty good. These guys have bought all the way in.
“Just coming into a game like this, the first kind of big game against that type of zone defense early in the season, to see such a difficult thing to play against and the way these guys stepped up, made big shots, competed, defended, kept them under 40 percent from three, pressured them early, guarded the three-point line when they needed to, out-rebounded them. Just a great effort by these guys.”