New York, NY — Moments after the final buzzer had sounded on a statement UConn victory, Dan Hurley and his players let their emotions loose as they walked off the Madison Square Garden floor. In front of a frenzied pack of Huskies fans, sophomore Tyler Polley grabbed the front of his jersey with both hands and puffed out the UCONN on his chest. Senior Jalen Adams, the longest-tenured member of the team, gave a visceral yell of joy as he passed the jubilant crowd. Hurley, the coach that those fans hope can return this program to its position amongst the college basketball elite, indulged in a celebratory scream of his own as he jogged to the tunnel.
For all kinds of reasons, this win meant as much to UConn as any mid-November win possibly could. Eight months removed from the school’s worst season in 31 years, the Huskies took down No. 15 Syracuse 83-76 behind an impassioned effort on both ends from a group of players that has bought into their new coach. “We all got the right mindset,” said Adams, who came to the podium with the remains of locker-room tears still in his eyes. “Once you got a group of players and coaches all connected with one common goal, it’s a whole different energy throughout the facility, whenever we’re together.”
The difference in the way UConn played Thursday night was night and day compared to a season ago. Not because the roster has been overhauled; many of the key contributors to the victory were on the roster that went 14-18 last year. Rather, it came from matching the intensity and energy of Hurley, the 45-year-old coach who has already changed the Huskies’ culture. UConn won because it got infectiously hot from three, but also because it played harder than Syracuse. The latter was the first thing Jim Boeheim said at his postgame press conference.
This wasn’t an ordinary atmosphere for an early-season tournament; it had a big-game feel from the opening tip. This was the 95th edition of a series between old Big East rivals that dates back to the 1950s. The two historic programs meeting at the Garden just feels right, and it’s a shame there’s no guarantee it keeps happening. Fans of both schools packed the seats on a snowy night in New York City, roaring back and forth during a game that UConn took control of late in the first half but couldn’t quite run away with. At one point, a frustrated Syracuse fan splashed their beverage on a UConn fan and was escorted out by security.
With two and a half minutes remaining and UConn clinging to a four-point lead, Alterique Gilbert pulled up from three from roughly 30 feet. Like it had all night for the Huskies, the ball found nothing but net. One possession later, Adams splashed another NBA-range three to effectively end any chance of a Syracuse comeback. “In my freshman year you’d never see me shoot it from the NBA line,” Adams said. “Coach is just telling me, even if I miss, I could be 0-for-5, he’s just giving me crazy confidence. That belief from the head coach—it doesn’t get any better than that.”
In total, the Huskies made 12 of 21 attempts from beyond the arc. They turned the ball over 20 times but kept playing hard, making shots and dominating the interior. Eric Cobb, a senior who averaged 1.7 points per game last season, posted career-highs of 13 points and 13 rebounds. At 6’9”, Cobb is shorter than all three Syracuse frontcourt players—especially 7’2” Paschal Chukwu—but overwhelmed the Orange with his physicality and effort. “He made our guys look like kids,” Boeheim said. UConn won the rebounding battle 46 to 32 as a team. The Huskies pushed the pace in transition to avoid the Syracuse zone, and when they did have to play in the halfcourt, they moved the ball well to set up open shots (22 assists on 28 made field goals).
As a collective and as individual units, these Huskies have overcome a lot of adversity. Gilbert, who led the attack with 16 points and eight assists, played just nine games in his first two years thanks to two season-ending shoulder injuries. Adams and Christian Vital, upperclassmen leaders who suffered through back-to-back losing seasons under Kevin Ollie, scored in double-figures, hit numerous big shots and were visibly energized to be playing winning basketball again. Cobb and grad transfer Tarin Smith (14 points) are each on their third different team. “I’m just so proud of these dudes right here,” Hurley said. “The guys all around me, they’ve all been through so much, either physically or just throughout their career. They deserve a moment like that. They deserved a Garden moment.”
That it came against a ranked Syracuse team made the moment even sweeter. The Huskies’ dogged defense made life difficult all night for Syracuse’s best players. Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Elijah Hughes combined to shoot 15 for 46 from the field. Freshman point guard Jalen Carey was the lone bright spot for Boeheim’s team, scoring 26 points in place of injured senior Frank Howard. The Orange kept it close, but every time they looked poised to make a run, UConn had an answer.
For the Huskies, this win is a signal that a turnaround may be happening faster than anyone expected. Hurley said what impressed him most about the way his team put Syracuse away was how far they’ve come in such a short amount of time. “It’s been like six or seven hard months together,” he said. “We’ve been getting after it pretty good.” On Friday, UConn will have a chance at another Garden moment. It will take on Iowa in the 2K Classic Championship Game in front of what promises to be a home-like environment. Regardless of what happens, the Huskies have already announced their presence to the nation. With four talented guards and an emerging frontcourt, Hurley thinks UConn has the chance to build off of this win. “This is just the beginning for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of upside to this basketball team.”