Dom Amore: On one wild afternoon, we saw the good, the bad and the scary as UConn men survive and advance in Big East tournament
NEW YORK – If you saw UConn’s season flash before your eyes during the final minutes Thursday, you’re probably not alone. The Huskies’ season wouldn’t have ended if they blew all of their 26-point lead against Providence, but it sure would’ve felt like it.
Imagine the feeling if the UConn men were forced to leave Manhattan and sit on something like that for a week?
Ultimately, the lead was too large for Providence to overcome, and a couple of massive 3-pointers from Jordan Hawkins and Alex Karaban saved the day, and saved the dignity and secured a 73-66 victory in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.
But on a wild afternoon, even if the Huskies led wire-to-wire, we saw all the sides of this men’s basketball team with multiple personalities.
We saw the team that can play elite defense and move the ball around with élan, the team that started the season 14-0, that won seven of its last eight. The Huskies looked, for most of this game, like a team that could go deep in the NCAA Tournament, maybe win the whole thing.
We also saw the team that could be knocked out on the first weekend, regardless of the seeding.
We saw the team that can bog down on offense and get careless with the ball.
We saw the team that can make big shots, and the team that can struggle to finish a game.
We saw the team that can stand up to the most physical teams out there … at times.
“Oohhhh,” coach Dan Hurley said, opening his press conference with the loud exhale the fan base had let out earlier. “For 28-30 minutes, we looked like the best version of ourselves, but credit Providence and credit this time of year. You stop playing a little bit, get a little sloppy … the turnovers, that could really prevent this team from doing something great.”
Turnovers. There were 18.
For 28:30, UConn looked like that team that could win it all, and led 58-32 after Nahiem Alleyne buried a three. Hawkins, who scored 19, was performing like a cool jazz musician does in New York, and Andre Jackson was just everywhere, threatening a triple-double.
Providence, which dominated the Huskies in early February and were dominated by them in the rematch, was once again getting outrebounded at nearly a 2-to-1 clip. The 19,000 plus in the Garden, split roughly down the middle, sounded like Gampel Pavilion.
And then it didn’t. The Friars quickly shaved 10 points off the lead and kept peeling away the layers, exposing flaws, forcing turnovers. Fouls and more fouls. When Noah Locke made a three, then former Husky Corey Floyd Jr. stole the ball from Jackson and scored, it was suddenly a five-point game with 3:34 left.
The Garden now sounded more like downtown Providence and the Huskies looked like a team trying to wish away the final minutes, rather than close things down.
“We were trying to stay even keel,” Jackson said.
To the Friars’ credit, they didn’t quit. To the Huskies’ credit, they didn’t fold. Don’t know about even keel, but at least they didn’t capsize.
Hawkins’ three with 3:08 left and Karaban’s with 1:01 left were of massive importance, restoring the lead to eight and Providence never got closer.
But, well, as Hurley said. “Oooohhhhh.”
“You’ve got to stay composed in a situation like this,” Hawkins said. “You’re playing for a championship. You’ve got to stay composed.”
The monster that a Garden crowd can become, that March pressure can become, is capable of taking down anyone. Marquette, the No.1 seed, had to go to overtime to hold off a St. John’s team fighting for its season. Now UConn plays Marquette in the semifinals Friday night, another rubber game that could tell us more of where this strange – entertaining, but strange – UConn adventure is going.
What can be made of this one? UConn learned another lesson in learning how to win down the stretch, a test it did not pass in January. We learned, again, how good UConn can be when functioning at peak performance level.
“I think they’re the best team in America,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “I don’t see one team better than the University of Connecticut right now.”
And we learned how fragile all these hopes can be, how quickly it can all disappear. All one can do is buckle up, keep an antacid handy and try to enjoy the ride.