The Hartford Courant
So many twists. So many turns. So much adversity.
No. 10 UConn, which has had trouble dealing with all three in its first 13 games, answered the call in each area Saturday on its way to a dramatic 82-80 overtime victory over St. John's. A closely guarded Caron Butler hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to astonishingly send the game to overtime and the Huskies gutted out an improbable victory before a sellout crowd of 10,027 at Gampel Pavilion.
The Huskies avoided going 0-2 in the Big East for the first time since the 1989-90 season and snapped a three-game losing streak to the Red Storm (7-6, 1-1).
The '89-90 Dream Season team, which featured a team that knew how to handle twists, turns and adversity and pulled together when times got tough.
While it's too early to compare these Huskies to the '89-90 team, they handled adversity well against the Red Storm.
``I think we had that fear that we were going to lose,'' Butler said. ``And keeping that fear, you just play so much better because you can't lose. You can't. You can't let your fans in your home gym down. They paid good money to see a show and they support us, standing out there in the cold, sleet and snow. You gotta perform. You gotta win. Whatever the situation is, whatever you gotta do, you gotta win.''
The Huskies (12-2, 1-1 Big East) trailed by as many as 15 in the first half. They allowed the Red Storm (7-6, 1-1) to score on eight consecutive possessions in the final minutes and go ahead by three with 11 seconds left in regulation. But then Butler connected on an improbable three-point fall-away while draped by Alpha Bangura with no time left to force overtime.
``I'm going to be honest,'' Butler said with a laugh. ``I couldn't hear anything. I couldn't see anything. The only thing I could see was the basket. I didn't even see the guy in front of me. He probably could have blocked the shot but I elevated pretty high and I just followed through. Perfect.''
The shot paved the way for the Huskies' harassing defensive effort in the final 2:48 of OT in which the Red Storm went scoreless. Souleymane Wane made 2 of 4 free throws (making 1 of 2 with 1:38 and 1:35 left) to give the Huskies their margin of victory.
``I think the discovery for us was that we learned, hopefully as a team, a little more of what it's going to take to win in this league,'' UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. ``The state of basketball and our conference is such that this will not be an atypical night. That's an atypical game in a sense of quality of the game and the competitiveness of the game. That was an advertisement for college basketball. An 82-80 war.''
And when it was over, it was the Huskies, coming off a loss in their first Big East game Wednesday night against Boston College, who were left standing.
Johnnie Selvie, getting the start at power forward in place of Edmund Saunders, led all scorers with 26 points to tie a career high, including a remarkable shot of his own, an 18-footer from the left baseline that gave the Huskies a 70-67 lead with 2:45 left. Selvie also had six blocks. He and Saunders (17 points, eight rebounds) combined for over half of UConn's points. Saunders was the first player Calhoun bearhugged after the game. Butler had 15 points and eight rebounds. Albert Mouring scored 11.
Taliek Brown was outstanding in his matchup against friend and fellow New Yorker Omar Cook. Brown played his best game of the season, bouncing back from a poor performance against BC. He had a season-high 12 assists and showed why UConn spent so much time recruiting him.
``This was wonderful for me,'' said Brown, who is from Queens. ``This was the kind of game I dream of and then playing it against somebody I know, it made it even more of a dream for me because I knew he was going to come at me. And I can't back down. I know everybody's watching at home so I knew I had to step up.''
In Calhoun's office after practice Friday, the coach handed Brown a basketball and told him it was his, meaning it's his job to run the team.
Cook had 11 points and his great vision led to 15 assists, the most by a UConn opponent in a Big East regular season game and the most by an opponent at Gampel. Cook and Mouring were the only players who played all 45 minutes. But it was Willie Shaw who kept St. John's in it with 25 points. He was 6 of 11 on three-pointers. Calhoun likened the 6-foot-6 sharpshooter to former UConn swingman Richard Hamilton. Bangura added 18 for the Red Storm, who had their way offensively until overtime. They were 2-for-9 from the field in the extra period and shot 43.8 percent for the game.
The Huskies, who shot 47.5 percent and outrebounded the Red Storm 40-34 rallied from a 40-31 halftime deficit and shot 62.1 percent in the second half. The team that opened the game 1-for-11 scored on 11 of 12 possessions and went on a 23-8 run to take a 64-57 lead with 7:23 left.
That was quite a turnaround for the Huskies, who trailed 40-25 with 1:38 left in the half.
``When we came in at halftime,'' Selvie said, ``I think everybody felt pretty confident that the game wasn't over and that we were going to make a run and win. But we knew we had to shut it down on defense to get it going and that's what we did.''
After Selvie's prayer-filled jumper fell, Shaw came right back and buried a three to tie the score at 70 with 2:34 left. Kyle Cuffe's dunk on a sweet high-low pass from Anthony Glover gave the Red Storm a 74-70 lead with 32 seconds left. Butler came back with a slam 10 seconds later and for the next 22 seconds, UConn, with two fouls to give, gave them until Cook went to the free-throw line. He missed the front end of a one-and-one but the Red Storm got the ball back. Cook was fouled again and hit the front end with 11 seconds left to make it 75-72.
With eight seconds left, a play was designed for Butler, Mouring or Tony Robertson to take the game-tying three.
``I remember Coach saying, `Have your shoulders above your knees, catch the ball in a good position and follow through.' And that's what I did,'' Butler said.
Down 82-80, the Red Storm had chances in the final minute, but three-point attempts by Shaw and Bangura and a missed off-balance layup by Glover with five seconds left kept the deficit at two despite a protest from Jarvis, who was looking for a foul call.
``It was a hell of a game,'' Jarvis said. ``I hope everyone who got a chance to watch it in person or TV enjoyed it. I wish they knew how hard all of the kids that played in the game had to work to put on a performance like tonight's.''
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