A Game For The Ages
We all came for different reasons.
Some were workers at Madison Square Garden. Others fans of West Virginia and Pittsburgh who’s teams had played earlier in the night, just looking to get their money’s worth from a one session, two game ticket.
And others, like me, were fans of either UConn or Syracuse, two teams who’s distaste for each other runs as thick as a river of blood.
But no matter what the reason was for coming to Madison Square Garden Thursday night, everyone left with the same feeling: that they had seen one of the greatest games, regardless of sport, ever played.
Syracuse 127- UConn 117 in six overtimes.
You can break down all the numbers and percentages, but that six stands out. Only two games in the history of college basketball have equaled it in length, and only a 1981 Cincinnati-Bradley game surpassed it.
My girlfriend, who sat on the edge of her seat for all 3 hours and 46 minutes with me, asked in overtime number two if there was such a thing as “triple overtime?”
Yes, I replied.
“And quadruple overtime?”
They keep playing until one team has more points than the other when the final horn sounds I responded. “But I’ve never seen a game go more than three overtimes, so no need to worry,” I added.
Little did I know, over an hour later, and four overtimes after the original question, she’d be sprinting through the Garden to catch the final train to get her back to New Jersey for the night. The next was at 5 a.m., which I’m pretty sure is just about the time the game ended.
127-117. Six overtimes.
The final score, just like the words on this paper, do no justice to the game itself.
For starters, I’ve been to hundreds of live sporting events, and nothing even came close to the electricity that was inside The Garden Thursday night.
While virtually any other major sporting event is played on one team’s home field or court, this was a neutral site in the truest sense.
And because of each programs success coupled with proximity to New York City, every March, Madison Square Garden fills with Syracuse and UConn fans, regardless of how good each team is, or the opposition.
And when the two schools actually play each other- like they have in four of the last five years- it’s always a must-see event. No ticket in college basketball this side of Tobacco Road is harder to come by.
But even for Syracuse-UConn, this was extra special.
I was in the Garden in 2006 when Gerry McNamara brought the house down, forcing overtime against the No. 1 ranked Huskies, before ultimately sticking an Orange pitchfork in UConn and then, the entire Big East.
But that was an afternoon game, when many fans were still in work or at school.
This was a 9 p.m., prime-time stuff. And with a game before it, fans from both schools weren’t bleary-eyed from catching an early train, but in top form after taking in West Virginia’s upset of Pitt earlier.
Each time anyone hit a basket to start the game, it felt like the roof was about to blow off. The same at the beginning and end of each overtime.
And when the game finally did end, there was both cheering and relief from Syracuse nation, and likewise from UConn fans.
There are many things that I will carry with me from this game, well beyond what the final scoreboard read.
For starters, I had the perfect view for Eric Devendorf’s shot in the closing second (singular) of regulation, and I can say unequivocally that when it left his hand, I not only knew it was going in, but was positive it would count.
As the referees went to replay I actually shook hands with a Syracuse fan in front of me, who’d been quite gracious all night. He told me not worry, that UConn would be just fine in the NCAA Tournament, and that the loss was a blessing in disguise as the team would have plenty of time to rest up.
The man grabbed his coat and went on his way. I still don’t know what happened to that Syracuse fan, but understandably, he didn’t have the courage to show his face again in Section 338, which was almost entirely made up of the UConn contingent.
But well after he left, the referees continued to look at the replay, spending what seemed like an eternity dissecting the tape. All of a sudden, the shot that I thought was a certainty was anything but, and I realized that with every passing second the game may be headed to overtime.
And when the referee ran on the court, waiving his hands indicating the basket was no good, there was an emotion in the arena like I’d never felt before. The Garden erupted. UConn fans hugging people they’d met just hours earlier, as if they were long lost family members, Syracuse fans with their hands on head, staring into the distance in total disbelief.
We were going to overtime.
And like all of the first five overtimes, UConn jumped out to a quick lead.
To me, that was the most amazing stat of the night, that Syracuse never actually lead in any of the first five overtimes. Not for one second. In one of the extra periods – I honestly forget which, maybe the fourth, maybe the fifth – UConn had two separate leads of five points and couldn’t hold on. Syracuse kept fighting, and deserved to win this game.
Above all, what will stand out from this game more than anything, is the heart of every player on the court.
A friend who is a UConn fan texted me at the beginning of the second overtime, “We look so tired, there’s no way we pull this out.” The teams then proceeded to play five more overtimes!
For Syracuse, it was guard Jonny Flynn, playing 67 of the possible 70 minutes, relentlessly taking the ball to the basket, time and time again. And Paul Harris, one of the games best dunkers, who in overtime missed a dunk, when his legs just ran out of spring.
For UConn, there was Stanley Robinson. The 6’9 junior has been an enigma for his entire three years in Storrs, with fans, coaches and teammates alike not sure what they’ll get from him from game to game.
But of the eight players who fouled out by the end of the game, Robinson got the loudest cheers as he headed toward the bench (A standing ovation was out of the question, as everyone in the arena was on their feet from the first overtime on, like one big, exhausted student section).
If it wasn’t for Robinson’s 28 points and 14 rebounds, in a “measly,” 53 minutes of play, there would have been no overtimes, as the Orange would have won this one going away.
And A.J. Price, the Huskies fiery senior guard, who seemed to will his team, possession after possession, playing 61 minutes on a surgically repaired knee. Andy Rautins of Syracuse had the same knee surgery a year ago, played 49 minutes Thursday and hit as many big shots as anyone in this game.
There was UConn freshman Kemba Walker, too emotionally drained after the fifth overtime to pick himself up off the floor. It took two Huskies to help Walker – the smallest player on the court – up off the hardwood. Of course this was the same Walker (generously listed 6’1, 172 lbs.) who had a put back rebound that forced the original overtime.
Even guys who rarely see the court, played larger than expected roles. That tends to happen when eight guys foul out.
One of the most memorable plays, that was forgotten in the grand scheme of the game came from little used UConn freshman Scottie Haralson. Haralson, who hadn’t played a minute since the first half, re-entered the game in the fifth overtime, and hit a shot in the closing seconds of the period, that gave UConn what turned out to be its final lead of the game.
Flynn of course made two free throws to tie the game back up just a few seconds later, and force the final period.
Overall, the numbers are staggering, with 11 players overall playing more than a full 40 minute game. Six players recorded double-doubles. Walker (again the smallest player on the court) out rebounded all but one Syracuse player with 11.
There were clutch players who missed free throws (Devendorf and Price both could have iced the win for their respective clubs) and poor free throw shooters who kept their teams in the game with makes (Arinze Onuaku a 30 percent shooter made two in a row in the closing minutes of regulation to give Syracuse a brief lead).
In the end, I’m not sure what this game means in the “big picture,” for either of these teams.
But whether Louisville, Villanova or West Virginia wins this tournament, it will be a small footnote next to the game would never end, arguably the best in Big East Tournament history.
As I walked out of the arena, I took a quick snapshot of the scoreboard.
A man with a cute blonde on his arm rushed by me, almost certain to miss his train like everyone else in Madison Square Garden on the night.
But then he stopped, and with me he took a snapshot as well.
“This is definitely worth a picture,” he said to me, quickly taking the photo. “I’ve been to every Big East Tournament since I was six-years-old and haven’t seen anything like this.”
As he disappeared into the crowd, he added, “And we never will again either.”