Hey, there, American, remember the “Hungry Huskies?” Maybe it’s time to get reacquainted.
Dan Hurley has taken the listless, dispirited players he inherited from Kevin Ollie and turned them into a wild bunch. Whipped up into a pressing, diving, perimeter-shooting frenzy, they pulled off the program’s most satisfying surprise in a while, knocking off 15th-ranked Syracuse, 83-76, before a filled Madison Square Garden.
“[The intensity] just comes from what we've all been through the last couple of years,” Jalen Adams said. “Injuries, not winning games, not putting away games. To play against a top 25 team and get to prove a lot of people wrong, there's nothing better than that."
It’s early in the season, sure, but their old Big East rival brought out the best in the Huskies (3-0), two-plus hours of the program’s old, championship fire, and in the perfect setting. They are doing all that Hurley — hired last March to rebuild after two sub-.500 seasons — promised they would, and they can add an old-school UConn souvenir — a trophy earned in New York — if they can beat Iowa in the final of the 2K Empire Classic Friday at 6:30 p.m.
“These guys really raised their game,” Hurley said. “They’ve had a look the last couple of days like they couldn’t wait to get here and play. They went out and performed to such a high level.”
This was far from a perfect game, the Huskies sometimes looking too amped up and losing control of the ball, turning it over 20 times. But they made up for the fumbles and stumbles with pure effort, contesting everything, fighting hard for every 50-50 loose ball.
Syracuse pulled within four points down the stretch, but Alterique Gilbert and Adams made killer 3-pointers, Adams extending the Huskies’ lead back to 10 with 1:33 left.
“Cold-blooded,” Adams said, when asked about Gilbert’s NBA-depth shot.
“First of all, I’d like to thank my surgeon,” said Gilbert, who has had three surgeries to correct his left shoulder.
The veterans of so many past disappointments savored this one. Adams and Gilbert each scored 16 points, and Eric Cobb, in the best game of his college career, had 13 points and 13 rebounds.
“[Cobb] made our guys look like kids,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, “he absolutely crushed us in there.”
Tarin Smith added 14, with big free throws at the end, and Christian Vital had 11 points in 16 minutes as the Huskies, playing like a swarm on defense, were an ensemble cast on offense, getting 22 assists on 28 baskets to foil Boeheim’s signature zone defense.
Syracuse freshman Jalen Carey (24 points) hit a 3-pointer at the other end to make it a five-point game with 1:01 left. After Boeheim took his last timeout, and Syracuse was forced to foul, Smith hit two, and things felt safe.
UConn shot 49.1 percent, and made 12 of 21 on 3-point attempts, including 8-for-13 in the second half. They smothered the bigger, more experienced Syracuse frontcourt 46-to-32 in rebounds, and held Syracuse to 38 percent from the floor, 6-for-22 on 3-point shots.
“We got after them to start the game,” Hurley said. “We set the tone with our pressure. They were rattled. We thought we could pressure them no matter what guards were healthy, and hold them to a low percentage from the field.”
UConn came out with hair afire, contesting everything Syracuse tried to do, and the Orange, still playing without point guard Frank Howard (ankle injury) felt the pressure. Carey had four early turnovers as the Huskies opened a 13-4 lead.
Syracuse struck back quickly. Oshae Brissett made a 3-pointer, the Orange only made three of the half, and Elijah Hughes followed a turnover with a 3-point play. Carey scored twice and Tyus Battle’s layup put Syracuse ahead, 15-13, finishing the 11-0 run.
But the Orange led for only 10 seconds, the Huskies controlling the tenor of the game.
The Huskies executed Hurley’s relentless pressure, they were having an effect, but fouls were mounting. Hurley subbed freely, using 10 players. Cobb, in for Josh Carlton, had one of the best stretches of his career, going 4-for-5 from the floor, hitting a 3-pointer and grabbing five rebounds as UConn again opened a lead, 32-25, with 4:14 to go in the half. The Huskies took a 38-32 lead into the break.
“It’s just a step forward,” Cobb said. “We’re trying to get the program back to where it needs to be and keep being humble, keep being consistent.”
Vital, playing with three fouls, hit another 3, and Smith made a block, and scored on the break on the other end to restore the Huskies’ lead to seven. Gilbert hit a 3 to give the Huskies their first double-digit lead at 51-41 with 14:05 left.
“It’s just how far they’ve come in such a short amount of time,” Hurley said. “These guys have bought all the way in, to come into a game like this, the first big game against that kind of zone defense, the ways these guys stepped in and made big shots, competed. They made so many great plays. … I’m just proud of these dudes, they’ve been though so much in their career, they deserve a moment like that.”
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