NEW YORK — For decades, Syracuse and Connecticut waged epic battles against each other in the Big East. The two schools won back-to-back national titles, with Carmelo Anthony and the Orange winning it all in 2003 before Emeka Okafor and the Huskies triumphed in 2004.
Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun certainly knew how to nourish a rivalry. Be quotable about each other, be really good at basketball over an extended period of time, and be sure to have some of the nation’s most passionate fans.
Best of all, be sure to play a six-overtime classic for the ages at Madison Square Garden in the 2009 Big East tournament.
People tend to remember that game whenever these two teams get together in Midtown. Naturally, no one expects one of those iconic games every time a particular pair of teams meets. It’s enough that the teams be near the top of the rankings and that the game means something in terms of consequences for March.
This latest game between Syracuse and UConn at the Garden … wasn’t quite like that. The Orange defeated the Huskies 72-63 on Tuesday night.
Boeheim is still here, of course. The Garden is still the Garden, and the fans still care. Oh, do they care.
The Orange and UConn faithful were fairly aching to reawaken the echoes of years past. And they were aching loudly (that tends to happen after 11 p.m. at the Garden) and en masse. As Boeheim put it after the game, “I don’t think any two schools are going to put more people in the Garden.”
Truth be told, today’s Syracuse and UConn players did their level best to live up to the memories.
While Syracuse’s Tyus Battle and UConn’s Jalen Adams each finished with a game-high 22 points, Matthew Moyer played like he had been shot out of a cannon. Even Boeheim seemed a bit nonplussed by the Syracuse sophomore’s 18-point, multi-dunk performance.
“He’s been horrible [this season], and that’s being nice,” Boeheim said of Moyer. Still, Moyer, in his coach’s estimation, “was a terrific player tonight, and I think he can build on this.”
The Orange won the way they have prevailed for much of the young season. Boeheim’s men crashed the glass and outrebounded UConn 37-26, including grabbing 14 offensive boards. Huskies coach Kevin Ollie was left to shake his head afterward.
“One of our game plans was to keep them off the offensive rebounds,” he said. “We’ve got to rebound.”
The game between the rivals was certainly no oil painting. “Both teams played fairly hard,” Boeheim offered somewhat charitably, but even he admitted, “it wasn’t great basketball.”
More crucially, it wasn’t important basketball. At least, we don’t yet think it was. Neither team is nationally ranked, and it’s still too early to tell if either will be an NCAA tournament team.
Of course, for all we know, we could be wrong about one or both teams. It’s only December, and if any programs have surprised us before, Syracuse (2016, anyone?) and UConn (see both 2011 and 2014) most certainly have.