Weekly Column: Six Times the Pleasure
pblackwell, Fri, March 13th, 2009
Oh, where do we start?
Where in the sprawling, multi-layered, intricate tale of will, courage, determination, drive, heartache and redemption, known as the quarterfinal of the Big East Tournament between Syracuse and Connecticut, is a place from which we can firmly plant roots to tell this grand tale?
Officially, close to 20,000 were present at Madison Square Garden. As time goes on, though, rest assured that 200,000 or so will claim to have been there, past 1 a.m., as the Orange and Huskies strained every superlative in the English vocabulary. They also strained themselves way beyond any normal personís breaking point.
It ended with the Orange on top, 127-117, in six overtimes, after SU had not even led once in any of the first five OT periods, the most astonishing fact in a game with a list of statistics too absurd for normalcy.
For one thing, SU outscored the Huskies 56-46 in those extra periods. That was more offense than Memphis and Tulane scored in 40 minutes of a regulation game (Memphis won 51-41) on the same night.
The two teams took 209 shots and 93 free throws. Eight players, four from each side, fouled out, and SU had a walk-on take the court by the sixth OT. And the game took a cool three hours, 46 minutes to complete, half an hour more than the SU-Connecticut football game did back on Nov. 15.
Toss out any astonishing numbers you want, but numbers cannot even begin to tell about the human element of this game, the pure enjoyment of seeing young, talented men find something extra in the heart when all logic dictates that the body must shut down.
At first, as an observer of all this, the end of regulation was stressful enough, between the Huskies tying it, Eric Devendorf sinking a miracle 3-pointer to end it Ė only to find that it wasnít the end.
Just one-tenth of a second more on the clock, and Devendorfís prayer gets answered, the game ends and itís just another March classic with a buzzer-beater to be replayed every time in the future that the Big East gathers at MSG to crown a champion.
But the fact that it didnít count, just by the tip of Devendorfís finger, adds to the aura of this classic. Many lesser teams, yanked down from the psychological high of what they thought was a winning basket, would just fold up. Syracuse did not.
Similarly, Connecticut displayed its heart, rallying from seven down late in regulation and doing enough in the multiple overtime periods to win just about any other game. However, Jim Calhoun will forever bemoan his teamís inability to hit the free throws it needed to pull away, while SU, notorious for its struggles at the line, went 40-for-51.
Maybe, though, the greatest legacy of this all-time game is that the perception of Syracuse University basketball might never be the same, and thatís a good thing.
All through Jim Boeheimís Hall of Fame tenure, SUís teams, 2003 aside, have been picked apart for what they didnít do, rather than celebrated for what they did accomplish. All those 20-win seasons were nice, but what did it amount to?
The underlying theme for this criticism was that SU was far too talented to be missing the NCAA Tournament at all or, when they got there, having a succession of early exits. As if, in the crucible of the one-and-done Dance, Boeheimís three trips to the title game and a national championship were somehow not enough.
This single game, and the efforts put forth by the likes of Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Andy Rautins, is a perfect antidote to those arguments. Talent alone cannot account for what they did on this long nightís journey into early morning.
How Flynn kept up his high level of energy and kept the turnovers down while dueling with A.J. Price into extra period no. 6. How Harris, overcoming all of the close-up shots he missed (especially at the end of the fourth OT), compiled 29 points and 22 rebounds. And how Rautins channeled his fatherís spirit for some big 3-pointers, including one at the end of the third OT that kept the epic going.
Everything that would follow in New York City would be anticlimactic, and the open question remained about how this game might (1) affect the Huskiesí NCAA Tournament placement and (2) leave the winded Orange vulnerable to an early exit in its first Dance in three years.
But those are details to be hashed out at another time Ė say, a few days from now, when all the NCAA entrants enter the best annual event in American sports and the singular joy that is March blossoms in full.
All of us in Central New York will, for the moment, gladly revel in the unique place Syracuse has carved out for itself in college basketballís annals through this epic clash with Connecticut. Not so long ago, Georgetown proved the mortal enemy. Now the Huskies hold that title, and nothing is sweeter than beating them.
In the end, though, whether youíre an Orange fan or Huskies fan, or just any person who cherishes the game, this game gave us all the reasons why we turn to sports in the first place, despite the scandals and tabloid headlines that threaten to engulf the whole scene.
Together, Syracuse and Connecticut gave us a very good reason to lose sleep.