NEW YORK— “It’s historic. It’s bigger than all of us. It’s all about the blood, sweat and tears.”
Those were the statements that Rodney Purvis, energetic and eager following his 21-point performance, used to sum up the play of his team in UConn’s 52-50 victory over Syracuse Monday night. The passion, the intensity and the sheer stage of Madison Square Garden seemed to be enough to give the Huskies the edge.
Coming off one of their lowest scoring performances in a few years against Boston University, the UConn men’s basketball team didn’t exactly show much offensive prowess after having five days of rest, and, by all accounts, almost let the game slip away. After being down by only two in the first half, they found themselves in an 11-point deficit midway through the second half. After taking the lead and having multiple chances to extend their narrow margin beyond three, three different players missed six free throw attempts in a row until Christian Vital hit the game-winning foul shots following an offensive rebound with 2.2 seconds left on the clock.
And to clear any controversy that might arise:
“I got fouled, I got fouled,” Vital said with a laugh. “It was the right call.”
The Husky defense was phenomenal, especially down the stretch—in fact, it was probably at a season-best all game. If nothing else, the Huskies played with fervor and hope unparalleled to any of their previous matchups.
“Some new growth was made today. They didn’t get down just like the BU game when their shots weren’t going in. We all was in the huddle, and we was believing, and I think that’s the positive energy that you’ve gotta have,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “The guys really hit and fought tonight and I was very proud of them.”
Syracuse was favored by eight points heading into the matchup, but the spread didn’t account for what might happen if Purvis went on a tear. His 21 points were a personal season-high, and his seven rebounds and three assists had just as big of an impact. In a game where both teams combined to shoot 30-for-105 (28.6 percent) from the floor, it’s easy to say that he was tonight’s MVP.
While he only hit five of 13 3-pointers, each one he made seemed to be substantially larger than the last. When the Orange took an 11-point lead after seven minutes had passed in the second half, UConn was in the middle of a dry 2-for-11 spell from the field. But very soon after Syracuse’s Andrew White III made a corner three that seemed to put the nail in UConn’s coffin, Purvis drove to the basket for quite literally the first time all night to get the Huskies back in it. Then he hit a three. And then he hit another one.
And soon enough, the score was 45-44 UConn after he hit his third three in a row, interspersed between some free throws by Jalen Adams.
“Every shot that I shot, it felt good. I just wanted to stay with it. It’s something that I’ve been dealing with all season. I was just able to see a few go in the rim, and the rim got bigger,” Purvis said.
Purvis was right about struggling this season. Though he averaged 11.3 points per game before tonight, he was also shooting 29.5 percent from three and 35.5 percent from the floor overall. Tonight, he shot 6-for-15 (40 percent) from the floor and 5-for-13 (38 percent) from three. The numbers certainly don’t jump off the page, but in a game like tonight’s, they’re above and beyond.
But it wasn’t just his offense that gave UConn the edge. After the run made by the Orange, the Huskies held Syracuse scoreless for seven straight minutes and 3-for-11 from the floor in the back end of the second half, all thanks to a player who has been suffering from a stomach bug since last Wednesday, and even had to fight through it tonight.
“Umm… no, I probably haven’t,” Purvis said on if he had ever seen Kentan Facey play a better game than he had tonight. “He was definitely huge for us today. If we can get that every day from him, then I think we’ll be perfectly fine.”
Facey was the leader on the boards, an area of defense that Ollie has been preaching about since before the season even started. The Huskies have been doing a poor job of crashing the glass and playing lockdown defense before this past week, but these last two games have shown tremendous steps forward, and Facey was the embodiment of that tonight. His 13 rebounds (four offensive, nine defensive) were a season-high for him, and his seven points definitely made a contribution.
But one has to look beyond the stat sheet to gauge just how important Facey’s performance was. The rebounds were not only plentiful, but they came in crucial spots where the Huskies either converted it into points or prevented Syracuse from scoring any more.
Two of his biggest rebounds played a huge part in helping UConn recover from the 11-point deficit. Down by six, he nabbed an offensive rebound after a missed three from Vital and plopped it in the net to make it a four-point game. After a missed layup on Syracuse’s end, he got the defensive board that eventually ended in Purvis’ go-ahead 3-pointer to make it 45-44.
While Ollie, Purvis and even Vital agreed that Facey’s contributions were invaluable, the reason for his success is that he never lost sight of the bigger picture.
“It’s UConn, it’s Syracuse at the Garden, like, that’s the biggest stage for us at this point in our season, so it was good for us to come out here and be a part of this. It was a great opportunity for us to carry on something that a lot of great players were a part of,” Facey said.
Maybe it was the venue, maybe it was the opponent, but one thing is for sure: The Huskies never gave up, and that was the difference. Despite everything that bad luck has thrown at them, Ollie knew in his heart that UConn was going to win.
“What am I gonna tell them [in the huddle], we gonna go down 25?” Ollie said with a chuckle. “I’m gonna tell them we gonna win! And I believe it. No matter what we’ve been through, we’re gonna get a reward for this pain. And I keep telling those guys, we just gotta keep fighting through it.”