NEW YORK — I’m fairly certain it’s tougher to win five games in five days than to beat a team three times in one season.
Doesn’t much matter what got it through five games in five days, though, or how tough it is. When it’s over, and you’ve done it, then you’ve done it. Ninth-seeded Connecticut made history Saturday night, defeating No. 3 Louisville, 69-66, to earn their seventh Big East tournament championship and, most likely, a three seed in the NCAA tournament.
So how impressive is what UConn just did? Well, if you want to measure this in terms of conversational and referential shelf life, I can promise you: people will talk about the Huskies winning five games in five days for decades. It’s as impressive an accomplishment as any player or team has ever done in this or any other conference tournament before.
The only-can-happen-in-the-Big-East nature of the achievement adds to its legacy and likelihood that it won’t be duplicated any time soon — especially if the conference gets rid of the double-bye. (And let’s hope that does happen. As good as this was, no team should be forced to play Tuesday through Saturday to earn a trophy.)
Once he settled into his chair at the postgame press conference, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun wasted no time in reflecting on the moment, the week, all it led up to and said what it meant to him.
“In 1990, couple years after I came to UConn, we were fortunate enough to have a terrific team and won a Big East championship back to back — that sounds so nice — against Syracuse and Georgetown,” Calhoun said. “That was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had in any kind of Big East play. This ranks right there with that. …. What these kids have accomplished during this week has been as moving for me as anything I can possibly think of.”
Afterward, the man of the hour, week, month and season in the Nutmeg State, Kemba Walker, he had an admission to make. Something he needed to get off his chest.
“Now that the tournament’s over I can definitely tell you that I was tired,” he said. “With about two minutes left I was gassed.”
They all were. Even the media was. Five days is just too many. Calhoun said, by the third day, it was a routine, the kind that there average Joe who works a 9-to-5 slugs out. It’s not that he and his guys didn’t want to play — it’s that it felt like a job that needed to get accomplished. As his team won more games, Calhoun heard the volume turned up about how no one had ever won five in five.
“It kind of gave you a feeling like it wasn’t going to happen,” Calhoun said.
The 68-year-old coach only brought four suits to New York. He doubled up Saturday night by wearing the same threads he donned when Walker gave the tournament its most memorable moment, that buzzer-beating, ankle-breaking jumper against Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals.
“The significant in college basketball … will hit me, because I’m a great historian about the game. I love the game,” Calhoun said. “I’m caught up on the emotion in what happened here,” Calhoun said. “I think the past four days, and tonight, to show the kind of grit that we had.”
Is it a bit insufferable that I’m waxing so poetic about this accomplishment? If you’re scoffing at the Connecticut love, then I implore you to consider that UConn is such a big deal because it outshined the tremendous, tight play in the Big East tournament (seven of the 15 games were decided by three or less, or went into overtime) and the team is one of the premier talking points in what many are now calling one of the greatest weeks of conference-tournament play in college basketball history.
And this is a team that wasn’t thought to be NCAA-caliber five months ago. And one that was doubted a few weeks ago, when it lost four of its last five games to finish its season.
And the best thing about this for the Huskies — despite all that physical wear and tear, they got their gait back. As they were in the beginning of the season, Connecticut is a feared team considered among the best in college basketball. Whatever it does in the tournament is gravy, really. Yeah, a first-round loss would be an upset, but years from now, all anyone’s going to talk about is the Big East title run.
Anything short of a Final Four won’t overshadow what happened in Manhattan this week. But now, after all the players and coaches have gotten their rest, the mindset has to shift.
“I will tell you this much, and I guess because of me coming up in a different sort of way, underdog is not as difficult as front-runner,” Calhoun said. “In the NCAA tournament we’ll be the favorite again. We’ve got to handle that — not that I’m worried — I’m just saying, I thought this week we were able to get the kids — it’s always my desire — to get a little chip on our shoulder.”
Maybe Connecticut loses in the first round Thursday or Friday. (The Selection Committee would be wise to let this team rest until Friday.) Maybe they make a run to the Sweet. Or the Final Four. No matter what happens, though, this team will be remembered, largely, for its unprecedented Big East run. Short of an NCAA title, it doesn’t get more prestigious than that.
Posted by Matt Norlander
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