March 8, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) - University of Connecticut men's basketball coach Jim Calhounsaid he didn't think any team would ever do what his did last year - win five games in five days to earn a conference tournament title.
The Huskies had plenty of people thinking they could be repeating history just one season later and it took another memorable BIG EAST tournament matchup with Syracuse to end their 13-game postseason winning streak. Dion Waiters had 18 points and James Southerland scored all 10 of his points over the final eight minutes to lead No. 2 Syracuse to a 58-55 victory Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
The top-seeded Orange (31-1) won their 11th straight game overall and advanced to face Cincinnati in the semifinals on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Huskies head home to wait to see their name called on Selection Sunday.
"The anguish I feel is disappointment for them," Calhoun said. "They were primed mentally today to do something very special and almost pulled it off."
Last year's run included an overtime semifinal win against Syracuse and that came two years after the Orange won the memorable six-overtime quarterfinal, 127-117 over the Huskies.
This Connecticut team was very different from last season's as all-everything guard Kemba Walkeris in the NBA. The Huskies were again seeded ninth and they started this tournament off with wins over DePaul and West Virginia.
Then came the Orange, who were playing their first game of the tournament after receiving a double bye.
"I told you last year during the five-game win streak or other times during win streaks, fatigue is the most overwritten-about thing in sports," Calhoun said. "Mental fatigue, though, I felt we had a little bit at the end. ... Saturday's game against Pittsburgh was very emotional and traveling Monday and playing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and they stood up to it all. We came up a little bit short. Once again, I love them and I'm proud of them."
Sophomore Shabazz Napier (Roxbury, Mass.) had 15 points and freshman Andre Drummond (Middletown, Conn.) added 14 for the ninth-seeded Huskies (20-13), who were trying to duplicate last year's first-ever five-game run to the BiIG EAST tournament title that was followed by a six-game streak that brought the school its third national championship.
"No one can tell you that it wasn't a good team who was wearing blue today," Calhoun said. "Did we shoot great? No. Did we make great decisions? No. Did we play with great heart and great intensity and did we play for us and each other? Without a doubt, and I couldn't be prouder of them."
In the semifinals last year, Connecticut beat the Orange 76-71 in overtime. In the previous meeting in the tournament in 2009, Syracuse won 127-117 in a six-overtime quarterfinal.
This one ended in 40 minutes, but there once again was the chance at playing past the regulation buzzer.
The Huskies, who beat DePaul and West Virginia in the first two rounds, went seven minutes without a field goal. During that span, Syracuse was able to take the lead for good on a fallaway jumper by Waiters that made it 48-47 with 5:41 to play.
Southerland, who came into the game averaging 6.6 points, hit his second three-pointer 16 seconds later to make it 51-47. Drummond converted an alley-oop pass from Napier with 2:32 left, the first time the Huskies were within three points.
The last time they were that close was 58-55 with 4.6 seconds left on a reverse by Drummond. After a timeout, the Orange were able to inbound the ball and run out the clock.
Neither team shot well - Connecticut 34.4 percent, Syracuse 38.5 percent. The Huskies controlled the boards with a 46-34 advantage, 18-8 on the offensive end, with Drummond grabbing 10, seven offensive.
"Both teams struggled shooting the ball, and both teams are very good defensively," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. " We couldn't really get anything going offensively, and then we changed something just a little bit. Got a little bit more space."
Syracuse had a big advantage at the free throw line, finishing 15 of 23 compared to the Huskies' 5 of 10.
The Orange swept the two regular season meetings, the second 71-69 at Connecticut. Syracuse has an 8-6 advantage in the teams' Big East tournament meetings and have won six of the last seven, the only loss the six-overtime game. The Orange are 4-0 against Connecticut in the quarterfinals.
Napier was seen as the player who could have provided what Walker did last season - poise under pressure and the ability to be the leader on and off the court - two things he can bring the Huskies in the NCAA tournament.
"I just think the guys, like Coach said, the last few weeks he's seen a change in me. I just seen a change in the guys. Everybody is really into each other. The chemistry is there. I think we got that edge that we was missing," he said. "We're just starting to have a lot of fun. A lot of basketball teams, they lose, and the reason why they lose is because they're not having a lot of fun out there. We win, we have fun, and it's hard to have fun when you lose. But if you see out there, we're smiling, we're enjoying the time out there because we all know we're blessed to be in the situation we're in, and I just think that my leadership may have rised, but at the same time, our team just became more into each other, more chemistry, and we turned the corner, and we're just a happy team now."