NEW YORK – Anything can happen at the Mecca of basketball.
The UConn men’s basketball team, depleted after a trio of season-ending injuries, and wading through an unexpectedly poor start, pulled out an unlikely 52-50 victory over former conference rival Syracuse at Madison Square Garden Monday night. Freshman guard and N.Y. native Christian Vital hit the deciding pair of free throws with 2.2 seconds left, before a desperate Syracuse full court pass was stolen as time expired.
“It was another one of these epic Syracuse/UConn matchups, and I’m glad we came out on the winning side,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said after the game.
Rodney Purvis led the Huskies (4-4) with 21 points on 6-for-15 shooting, including a 5-for-13 mark from downtown. Purvis made a number of crucial shots throughout the night at defining moments of the game, including a three-pointer with 6:18 remaining to put UConn up one point after they trailed by 11 earlier in the half.
“Every shot that I fired, it felt good, so I just wanted to stay with it,” Purvis said. “I was just able to see a few go in the rim, and the rim got bigger, so I was able to knock some shots down.”
UConn and Syracuse began Monday with a display of extremely poor shooting, which would remain a theme throughout the night. Each team made only one field goal over the game’s first six minutes, as the Huskies matched Syracuse’s notoriously effective 2-3 zone defense with a strong zone of their own, although UConn did switch up their strategy and play man-to-man at times.
The Huskies generated a couple of good shots, but they also struggled with turnovers early, a problem that plagued them in last Wednesday’s win over BU.
It was a fairly quiet first half, with the two teams trading small leads amidst a litany of missed shots. Each team went through a large scoring drought, with UConn failing to score for six minutes of game time early in the half and Syracuse going scoreless for nearly five minutes later in the half.
The Orange saw disappointing shooting nights from their two leading scorers, forwards Andrew White III and Tyler Lydon. White finished with 14 points on 4-for-15 shooting, making 3-for-11 from behind the arc, while Lydon scored seven points on 1-for-7 shooting.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim lamented Lydon’s decisions with the ball.
“[Lydon] had probably six or seven 15-footers and he just [drove] them and that’s not the strength of his game. He’s got to shoot the ball in those situations,” Boeheim said.
After 20 minutes of lackluster scoring, Orange forward DaJuan Coleman converted a layup at the buzzer to give Syracuse a 23-21 lead entering the halftime break.
Syracuse began the second half by hitting some of the open shots they failed to make in the first half, which helped them open up an 11-point lead with 13:10 remaining in the game. That run also brought about one of the loudest cheers of the night, from the Syracuse half of an evenly-split Garden crowd.
The Huskies responded by chipping away at the lead with some Purvis baskets, a majority of which were assisted by point guard Jalen Adams. They also received a tremendous rebounding effort from senior forward Kentan Facey, who played through a stomach virus, per Ollie and Purvis after the game.
Facey finished with 13 strong rebounds, with four of those coming on the offensive end, including one that led to Purvis’ go-ahead three-pointer with 6:18 remaining, which ignited the UConn half of the Garden crowd.
“For him to come out, and probably have one of his best games…to have 13 rebounds, play 29 minutes with a stomach virus, just means the world,” Ollie said of Facey’s work in the paint. “I was very proud of Kentan.”
Down the stretch, the UConn defense tightened significantly, holding the Orange to just six points over the remainder of the game. The Huskies switched efficiently within their schemes to prevent open three-point shots, and Facey pulled down many of the necessary rebounds to end possessions after one shot.
“We was able to execute on the defensive end, and that led to us getting big rebounds, and big stops, and we was able to convert on the offensive end,” Purvis said.
UConn seemed to be in good shape with 2:32 remaining, a three-point lead and senior center Amida Brimah heading to the free throw line for two shots. However, Brimah missed both, and nearly two minutes with that lead still intact, Facey missed a pair that could have put UConn up five points with 23 seconds remaining.
The Orange eventually capitalized on the Huskies’ miscues as White III hit a corner three to tie the game at 50 apiece with nine seconds remaining.
After that shot, UConn drove down the floor before Purvis quickly attempted and missed a potential game-winning jumper from long range. Vital ripped down the offensive rebound and was fouled by Tyus Battle with 2.2 seconds left to give the young guard a chance to win the game at the line. After that foul call, Boeheim called timeout to talk it over as the Garden crowd held its collective breath.
With all the pressure on his shoulders, Vital made both, the only points he scored all night.
“I had the older guys help me out, they talked to me. Like I said earlier, that timeout helped me more than it helped [Syracuse], because it gave me a chance to get talked to by the older guys, and calm me down, and I was able to knock them down, and we won the game,” Vital said after the game.
Lydon took the ball out of bounds, threw a lengthy pass in search of a shorter game-tying field goal attempt and was picked off by Purvis to seal the game as time expired.
With the win, UConn evened up the all-time series between the two teams at Madison Square Garden at seven wins apiece, and more urgently, picked up a crucial morale builder in a season where they have fought through their fair share of struggles and demoralizing injuries.
The Huskies sit now at the .500 mark, with three games remaining until American Athletic Conference play, including a road showdown against Ohio State this Saturday. Their performance Monday showed their resilience, especially in the face of a double-digit deficit, and the way they can play when they bring energy and effort.
“No matter what we been through, we gon’ get a reward for this pain, and I keep telling those guys. We just got to keep fighting through it,” Ollie said.