Tonight at Madison Square Garden, Big East rivals Syracuse and UConn meet again in a contest that has national implications! If only this were still true; alas, UConn has been banished to the AAC, while the Orange have become a valued member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Still, these two teams will meet tonight, under the bright lights of the Garden, in a game hotly anticipated by the fanbases of both sides. During the 1990s and 2000s, the Huskies became one of the chief rivals to the Orange, arguably drawing level with Georgetown in terms of Syracuse hate at various points. At this same time, UConn saw their local neighbors as a proud program with a rich history the Huskies did not quite possess, and used this hatred partly to drive themselves to success never though possible for a state school in the northeast. The mutual disdain, along with the high quality basketball provided by both sides, made these games one any basketball fan, let alone Big East fan, would not want to miss. However, the recent conference realignments have robbed the college basketball world of this annual tradition; until this year. Yes, last year’s clash in the Bahamas was a nice treat, but this is the big time. This is Syracuse-UConn in the heart of New York, playing at the world’s most famous arena. With the rivalry being renewed tonight, it seems like a great time for a stroll down memory lane to relive some of UConn’s best moments against the Orange.
March 11th, 1990: UConn 78, Syracuse 75
This game took place in New York City, and was for the Big East Championship. UConn, ranked number eight in the country, was in the midst of a year nowadays called the “Dream Season” by the fanbase; after starting the season unranked in 1989-90, Jim Calhoun’s Huskies, a program with little national reputation, clawed its way into the top ten behind guard Chris Smith, and had even defeated Syracuse in Hartford, CT during the regular season. However, the Orange had returned the favor by winning the return game at the Carrier Dome, and came into this Big East final ranked fourth in the country. Syracuse was heavily favored in this game, and jumped out to a 17-5 lead behind star Derrick Coleman just six minutes into the first half. However, the Huskies battled back thanks to the defensive efforts of freshman Toraino Walker, and 22 points from Tate George, who hit clutch free throws to ice the game. Smith, a sophomore at the time, netted 20 points and was named tournament MVP. UConn was given a number one seed in the 1990 Tournament, and eventually lost in the Elite Eight to Duke, on a miracle shot by Christian Laettner. While a sad end to the Dream Season, UConn had defeated the Orange twice, and clinched the first of their record-tying seven Big East Tournament titles.
February 28th, 1999: UConn 70, Syracuse 58 and March 5th, 1999: UConn 71, Syracuse 50
In 1999, UConn lost only two games, and spent over half the season ranked as the number one team in the country. However, one of those losses had come at home to the Orange, an embarrassing 59-42 game in which UConn’s best players did not compete due to injury. The Huskies were number four in the country when they traveled up to the Carrier Dome for their final regular season game at the end of February. With future lottery pick Rip Hamilton and starting center Jake Voskuhl both healthy, UConn won at the Dome in convincing fashion, getting 26 points from Hamilton and 21 from savvy point guard Khalid El-Amin. The teams faced off again not a week later in the Big East semifinals, with the Orange aiming to prove they could beat a healthy Husky lineup. Instead, Jim Calhoun’s loaded squad eviscerated Syracuse, posting a 21-point victory. UConn raced out of the gate and never looked back, taking a 38-18 lead into halftime. Junior forward Kevin Freeman led the way with 21 points, while Hamilton again contributed greatly, scoring 17. The Huskies won the Big East title over St. John’s the next day, and defeated a heavily favored Duke side a few weeks later to win the program’s first national title.
March 11th, 2011: UConn 76, Syracuse 71 (OT)
Sometimes, one player can transcend the sport, and guide a team over another unit. UConn saw that with Gerry MacNamara leading Syracuse to an 86-84 victory in the 2006 Big East Tournament. However, in 2011, it was Kemba Walker, in the midst of one of the greatest seasons ever, putting the Huskies on his back in the semifinals and carrying them across the finish line. The contest was back and forth, no team able to pull more than a couple points ahead, Walker (33 points) faced a valiant challenge from Orange guard Scoop Jardine (20 points), but was able to hit the clutch free throws in overtime to win the game, after Jardine had hit two threes with Syracuse down six to force the extra period. Sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi notched 15 points and 11 rebounds for UConn, who also needed contributions from Jeremy Lamb (11 points) to hold on in OT. This was UConn’s fourth win in four days, and they completed the gauntlet with a win over Louisville the next day for the Big East title. UConn then continued their magical run, winning six more games in a row to clinch the school’s third championship, defeating Butler 53-41 in the last game.
UConn has of course lost their fair share of big games to the Orange, as well. Again, the losses that stung the most happened under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament. Most notable is the six overtime classic in 2009, which was won by the Orange after 1:30 in the morning, and the aforementioned game in 2006 that Syracuse won on the strength of Gerry MacNamara. The Orange, in addition to their share of meaningful victories over UConn, lead the all-time series 55 to 37. However, all that gets thrown out the window when the ball is tipped-off at the very next meeting. Luckily for everyone, that happens to be tonight.
Chris Smith vs. Duke: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/playoffs-uconn-chris-smith-in-action-vs-duke-east-news-photo/81429248#college-basketball-ncaa-playoffs-uconn-chris-smith-in-action-vs-duke-picture-id81429248
Richard Hamilton: http://www.courant.com/sports/basketball/hc-richard-hamilton-uconn-0301-20150228-story.html
Kemba Walker: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2011/03/11/walker-leads-no-21-uconn-into-big-east-finals/