DB’s Weekly Take: My top 5 memorable UConn sporting events as a student

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Connecticut players huddle before a women’s Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament semifinal game against the Arizona Friday, April 2, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The women’s basketball team is just one of UConn’s teams that made Danny Barletta’s list of his top five memorable UConn sporting events as a student. Photo by Morry Gash/AP Photo.

This week is my last week on campus as a UConn student, and as a result, I’m feeling very nostalgic and sentimental. So, I figured I would use that nostalgia for my column this week. In my four years at UConn, I’ve been to a lot of games, most of them as a reporter, but some as a fan too. I’m going to try and rank the five best UConn sporting events I’ve seen in person over that time. 

The criteria for inclusion on this list includes, of course, how good the game was itself, the atmosphere of the game and any special meaning the game had, either to the team or to myself. But the most important thing it must check off is being an exciting game to watch. So for example, UConn football vs. USF on Nov. 4, 2017 is a very special game to me because it was my second date with my girlfriend Kayla, who I’ve now been with for 3.5 years and have a beautiful baby daughter Natalie with. However, UConn lost that game 37-20 (big surprise, huh?) and it was never close, so that game won’t be featured on here. 

That being said, it’s still hard to narrow it down to just five, and the list you’re reading probably has already been altered at least 10 times. But here it is: 

5. Women’s basketball NCAA Elite Eight vs. Louisville, March 31, 2019 

This number five spot was definitely the hardest to fill because I still feel like I left out a bunch of great games, but I couldn’t not include this one. As a sophomore, I got to cover the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in Albany for UCTV, and it was awesome. Albany definitely isn’t the most fun city, but it was really cool to cover such a major event.  

Both games were really good too. The Huskies sneaked by a tough UCLA team in the Sweet 16 69-61 only to face Louisville, who was ranked No. 5 in the country at the time and was one of only two teams to beat UConn during the regular season. It was a great game that UConn led pretty much throughout, but Louisville just wouldn’t go away. After trailing by as many as 11, the Cardinals cut the lead all the way down to two, but the Huskies hit their free throws when they had to. Katie Lou Samuelson went off for 29 points, and Christyn Williams (then just a freshman) came up big with 16 points and a huge steal at the end to seal the game. 

The 80-73 win sent UConn to its 12th straight Final Four, but we won’t talk about what happened there against Notre Dame. This win is also significant for being the final win in the incredible careers of Samuelson and Napheesa Collier. This one had to make the list. 

4. Men’s basketball vs. Florida, Nov. 17, 2019 

This is actually the only game on this list that I was at solely as a fan. I have really great memories of this day. The game happened on my 21st birthday, and my parents and sister came down from outside of Boston to see me. We went to this game together, and it was a blast. It was their first ever UConn basketball game, and boy was it a good one. 

The Huskies were coming off a brutal loss against St. Joseph’s, so I didn’t think they had a chance against Florida, who was ranked No. 15 in the country at the time. But, I underestimated the Gampel Pavilion advantage. The place was sold out that day, and the crowd was as loud and rowdy as I’ve ever seen. Florida could never get comfortable that day. Even though UConn didn’t play a great game either — they shot under 20 percent from three — they still made enough plays to come away with a huge 62-59 win. Christian Vital and Tyler Polley led the way with 15 points each.  

This was an awesome game and was one of the most electric atmospheres I’ve ever seen at any sporting event. It was also a terrific birthday present for me. 

3. Men’s hockey comebacks vs. BU and UMass, Feb. 21 and 28, 2020 

Ok, I’m kind of cheating with this one because it’s actually two games. But, they happened just a week apart and they’re so similar that I just roll them together as one event in my mind. I was on the men’s hockey beat for this season, and looking back, it was probably my favorite beat I was on here at UConn. Men’s basketball was obviously fun this year, but with such limited access due to COVID-19, I didn’t get to have the full experience of covering the team in person. 

This men’s hockey season, however, was just magic, especially starting in mid-January when they went on this incredible run, beating seemingly every team they faced. However, it wasn’t until these two games that I truly believed this was a team of destiny. Both Boston University and UMass were ahead of UConn in the standings. It didn’t matter. Both of them were ahead on the scoreboard late in the third period. It didn’t matter. UConn wasn’t going to lose. 

In the BU game, the Huskies were playing terribly in the second and third periods and were down 3-2, but something changed in the final three minutes. With an extra skater, they just started peppering the BU goalie with shots. Finally, Ben Freeman knocked in a rebound to tie the game with under a minute left. Then, on the first shift of overtime, Freeman made a steal in BU’s zone and found Sasha Payusov for the game-winning goal. The XL Center went crazy. This game alone probably would have made my list, but then a week later, the same thing happened. 

Against UMass on Senior Night, the Huskies were trailing late again, this time 2-1. I remember sitting in the press box thinking, “They can’t possibly do this again, can they?” Just then, Marc Gatcomb scored to tie the game. At that point, I knew UConn was winning. I just thought it would be in overtime again, but the Huskies weren’t wasting any time. They kept the puck pinned in the UMass zone for the entire final minute, and finally with eight seconds left, Kale Howarth found a rebound in the middle of the ice and sent it into the net to win. The XL Center was even more filled that night, and it was the loudest I ever heard it for a hockey game. 

Obviously two weeks later, the season got canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic right before the Hockey East Tournament was about to start. I’m convinced that if it had happened, UConn would have made a surprising run and possibly could have won it. That was a special team. 

2. Women’s basketball exhibition vs. the U.S. Women’s National Team, Jan. 27, 2020 

This exhibition was an absolutely incredible event to be a part of, and it really had nothing to do with the game itself. I volunteered to cover this event for UCTV the week before because I thought it would be cool to see the current UConn team facing off with some UConn legends. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  

There was so much happening at once that night at the XL Center. Just one day earlier, Kobe and Gianna Bryant were among the nine who died in a helicopter crash. I didn’t realize how much that affected the UConn community until that night. Kobe was a huge supporter of women’s sports, and Gianna dreamed of being a player at UConn. Every player on UConn’s team knew Kobe and Gianna. Geno Auriemma knew Kobe and Gianna. Every player on Team USA knew Kobe and Gianna. UConn set up a special chair with a UConn No. 2 jersey on UConn’s bench to honor Gianna, and the game started with a tribute to all the deceased. 

But at the same time, it was a night of celebration. UConn’s 2009 and 2010 National Championship teams were honored pregame on the 10th anniversary of the repeat undefeated champions. So quite literally, almost every UConn women’s basketball legend was under the same roof. You had Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart (playing in her first game since her Achilles tear), Tina Charles and Katie Lou Samuelson on Team USA. You had Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery, among others, as part of the 2009 and 2010 team celebration. You had Rebecca Lobo calling the game on ESPN. 

It was such an amazing night that I will always remember. Everywhere you turned, you were surrounded by legends of  women’s basketball. I remember postgame bouncing around to interviews with all of them. I was just in awe. I’m getting goosebumps just remembering the range of emotions of that night. Oh yeah, and Team USA won 79-64. 

1. Men’s basketball Senior Night vs. Houston, March 5, 2020 

It’s hard to put anything above that Team USA exhibition event, but the game itself wasn’t all that interesting, which allows this game to take the top spot. This was the loudest I’ve ever heard Gampel Pavilion. Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert were honored for Senior Night before the game, and the team came out with a different fire that night. I was writing a story for UConn Athletics about Vital and Gilbert, but I wasn’t on deadline, so I really got to just sit back and enjoy the game. 

The players were clearly feeding off the energy of the crowd, and vice versa. Every basket UConn made, the crowd seemed to get louder. I’m not sure how Gampel’s roof stayed on that night. Houston took a seven-point lead into halftime, but UConn came out hot in the second half and was able to tie the game at 41 less than four minutes in. From there, it was back and forth the whole way until Vital took over in the last few minutes. He hit some big shots down the stretch and sank eight clutch free throws to seal the game. 

Vital was not going to let his final home game end in anything other than a win, and he finished with a heroic 26-point performance in the 77-71 win. Houston was ranked at the time, and they went to the Final Four this year with almost the same team, so that was a really impressive win. I think it could have sparked a run in the conference tournament had it been played, but just a week after this game, everyone’s lives would change as the pandemic really set in. 

Two memories will always stand out for me in that game. The first was Vital addressing the crowd after the game and the crowd just showering him with love and appreciation. Vital had a tough career at UConn, but that’s how I and a lot of other people will remember him. The second was something Houston’s coach Kelvin Sampson said in his press conference after the game. Sampson, who coached at Gampel quite a few times over the years as the coach of Oklahoma and Indiana, said, “It sounded like the old days in here tonight.” When I heard that, I knew UConn basketball was going to be back on the map really soon. 

Well, that’s it. I had to leave some great games off of here, including the Ray Allen number retirement game, baseball’s thrilling comeback against Bryant earlier this week and women’s soccer’s season finale in 2019 that ended on an offsides call to wipe UConn’s game-winning goal off the board. But I’m confident that these are the five best games I’ve gotten to attend as a UConn student. Thanks for sticking with me. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Congrats with your DC career. Was at that Houston game and agree with Coach Sampson’s assessment that it indeed “sounded like the old days in Gampel.” Of note: I think that might have been the Huskies first win in a game they trailed at halftime in almost two years! I was apprehensive about attending that game as the impending pandemic was breathing down our necks. When I got to my seat and surveyed the packed house I realized I was were I needed to be regardless. It was a great game by Vital and a fitting send off for one of the toughest hombres to ever play for UConn. Needless to say that was my last in person game…until the next time, GO HUSKIES!!

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