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UConn-‘Cuse: Just Wow

I remember being at the semifinals of the 2003 Big East Championship.  Sitting about 20 rows back of where the baseline meets the sideline at Madison Square Garden, I watched Connecticut and Syracuse go at it.

Carmelo Anthony had been the story of the year but on that March night it was Ben Gordon who put the Huskies on his back to take down ‘Cuse and its freshman titan.  After the teams exchanged postgame handshakes — Anthony with Gordon and Emeka Okafor among others, pantheon coaches Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun with one another — I tracked Anthony as he exited the court and walked toward the tunnel.

I inched closer to floor level, getting to within shouting distance of him.  Intending to give him a piece of my mind (it’s a habit I have), I suddenly had no words (a rarity).  He had this steely and resolute look in his eyes, yet at the same time seemed to be fighting back a grin.  The contradiction froze me. 

The look, which could have been construed as a defiant acceptance of defeat, I interpreted differently.  It was almost as if he knew something nobody else did, and the moment of clarity just happened to come after a tournament loss in the world’s most famous arena.  To me he looked like a kid who knew the stage was about to be his, and to hell with anyone who dared stand in his way.

Can I be positive about this?  Of course not.  But I will say I left MSG that night knowing which team I’d have going the distance once the brackets were announced.  I left the Garden with the sneaking suspicion that I had witnessed some history wrapped in an otherwise ho-hum 80-67 final.

Three and a half weeks later I had won my first (and only) March Madness pool and was about to pen the first (of a few) “Respect Carmelo” columns for my school newspaper.

So why am I writing about that contest now?  Why give two hoots about some game that happened six years ago when the same teams just ran six overtimes less than 24 hours ago??  SIX!!!!!!  That’s three full halves PLUS two overtimes!!!

I’ll tell you why: Because it’s special to feel like you’re a part of history.  I witnessed one of the greatest college players lose for the final time, and am pretty sure I pegged the moment when he decided as much.  That moment still resonates.

I wasn’t even at MSG Thursday night but can say unequivocally that Connecticut-Syracuse on March 12, 2009 was a game I’ll be talking about when I’m an old-timer.  I may not have been as privileged as the 19,375 inside the Garden, but I still feel like I was a part of history.

This one was so epic you didn’t even have to be there, you just had to see it with your own eyes.

Had to see Eric Devendorf’s miracle three with 1.1 seconds left in regulation, a shot that would have Deven-dwarfed every buzzer-beater since Christian Laettner’s had there been 1.2 seconds remaining instead.

Had to see 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet — disregarding the fact that his cranium is situated somewhere in the stratosphere — dive earthward for a loose ball to secure a possession in overtime.

Had to see UConn jump out to leads in each of the first FIVE extra sessions, only to watch Syracuse claw back and tie the game — but never take the lead — every time.

Had to see Paul Harris miss not one but two layups in the closing seconds of the fourth overtime that would have won the game for the Orange.

Had to see Jonny Flynn put a tad too much english on a reverse layup just moments before Harris.

Had to see, one by one, star players foul out and give way to walk-ons and benchwarmers.

Had to see those same walk-ons and benchwarmers make HUGE plays in the biggest moments of their lives.

Had to see all the drives, jays, blocks, acrobatic saves, bodies flying, near-daggers, rugby scrums for loose balls, volleyball battles for boards, clutch free throws, diabolic bounces off the tin, jumping jacks, and-ones…

Had to see Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery lose a few marbles.

Had to see the fans — who were as exhausted as the players — yelp like dogs with muted barks once it was all over.

Had to see Boeheim — no sucker for hyperbole — proclaim he had “never been prouder of any team”.

Had to see………hell you just HAD to see it.

If you’ve been reading this column up until now and feel like the last half has been one convoluted, impossible-to-follow run-on, that’s good because that’s exactly what I intended it to be.  I essentially just cut and pasted my notes into the piece.

Truth is, I can’t do justice to what transpired in midtown Manhattan Thursday night.  You gotta see it for yourself.

So check out ESPN Classic when you have a moment. Chances are they’re heading into overtime right now…

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