Always emotional, UConn coach Jim Calhoun had plenty to say Wednesday after his team’s gripping overtime win over West Virginia at the Big East tournament.
But as his praise echoed through Madison Square Garden’s halls after his Huskies rallied for the 71-67 victory, the same word kept rolling off the Hall of Famer’s tongue.
He was proud, and he wanted everyone to know it. Like a glowing father basking in the glory of his son’s first Little League home run, Calhoun was effusive in his acclaim of his team — a squad once counted out and left for dead, but now thriving at the perfect time.
"I think for a team that has obviously had its ups and downs … to come back and win three in a row, I truly believe a coach couldn’t be prouder," said Calhoun, who missed eight games in February as he battled a case of spinal stenosis that required major surgery.
"It’s a funny word to throw around,” he continued, "because you know you’ve had some moments to be proud (of) in bigger places … but that’s one heck of a win."
And a heck of a win it was.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that Wednesday afternoon’s contest was a classic. After all, it was a rematch of the last two Big East champions, and in each of the last three seasons, either UConn or West Virginia has reached the Final Four.
But the way Connecticut rallied — improbably erasing an 11-point deficit to knock off a talented Mountaineers team coached by Bob Huggins, another legend — was the kind of scenario few could have envisioned.
"One of the reasons I think we do well in tournaments is because we play with a little different attitude," Calhoun said of his suddenly resurgent team. "We don’t have anything to lose … but we’ve got a hell of a lot to gain. We’re going to really show people that we’re pretty good.”
UConn didn’t look so good for most of the game Wednesday, allowing West Virginia to dominate the boards and turn 26 offensive rebounds into 25 second-chance points. But with 4:53 left in the second half and his Huskies down 61-52, Calhoun called a timeout and rallied his troops one last time.
He didn’t yell and scream, as he is often wont to do. He didn’t even look mad. Instead, he used that brief time on the sideline with his players to try to put everything in perspective.
"Coach told us one thing: ‘We’ve got to lock up the game. We’ve got nothing to lose. Why not go out there and give it your all?’ ” said point guard Shabazz Napier, who scored 26 points.
"You’re playing in one of the best stadiums in the country, Madison Square Garden. Who doesn’t want to play there? As long as you get on that pillow (at night) and say, ‘I gave it my all,’ what else can you say? What else can you do?"
The legendary coach’s words resonated with his players, who, led by Napier, put together a comeback that no one outside their locker room saw coming.
Connecticut trailed 63-54 when Napier hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to six with 3:39 left, forcing a West Virginia timeout. After the break, Napier knocked down two pressure-packed free throws to trim the lead to four. A Napier steal and layup shaved two more points of the lead, and then a second straight steal and another uncontested layup tied things up with 2:08 to go.
The furious rally incited bedlam among the many UConn faithful in attendance. This was the Garden. This was the Big East. This was madness. This was a team and a following that knew it was witnessing something special.
After a mismanaged final minute, the game ended up in overtime, where the Connecticut defense locked in. The Huskies held West Virginia to just two points on 0-for-11 shooting in the extra period, and Jeremy Lamb, UConn’s leading scorer all season long, hit a 3-pointer to give the Huskies a 70-67 lead with 1:05 left and seal the win for Connecticut.
“I told Jeremy, ‘You’ve got to be willing to shoot now, and you’ve got to be looking for hits,’ and when he came off that curve, there was no doubt in my mind it was going in,” said Napier, who fouled out with 2:35 to play. "That’s what he works on in practice. That’s what we work on in practice."
Now it’s on to a date Thursday at noon ET with top-seeded Syracuse (30-1), the No. 2-ranked team in the nation.
It’ll be the third meeting of the season between the two rivals — the Orange crushed UConn at home on Feb. 11, but Jim Boeheim and Co. barely escaped Connecticut with a 71-69 win in the rematch in Storrs two weeks later.
Don’t be surprised if Thursday’s game is another Garden classic.
Three of the last four Big East tournament games between UConn and Syracuse have been decided in overtime, including the Orange’s 127-117 win in a legendary six-overtime contest in the 2009 quarterfinals.
The win Wednesday was the seventh straight Big East tournament victory for Connecticut, tied for the third-longest streak in tournament history. With two more wins, the Huskies will tie their own record of nine, set from 1998-2000. Three more wins would give UConn its second straight Big East title, with both championships requiring five wins in five nights.
Which raises the question, could it possibly happen again?
"I don’t think it can, but then again, I said it could never happen in the first place," Calhoun said of his team’s five-game run last year.
"We’re just going to try to play tomorrow’s basketball game and take it where it may. When we beat DePaul and Georgetown (last season), we weren’t thinking about the rest of the stuff, nor are we today. We’re thinking about playing the best team in the country tomorrow."
Less than a week ago, this UConn team was a squad without a coach, without direction and without a chance in hell at living up to the lofty expectations that come with being a defending national champion.
But if the last three games are any indication, all of that has changed.
"You know, we’ve been through a lot this season," Napier said. "Not having coach, not really understanding the chemistry, not really understanding the leadership. And sometimes we questioned our heart and how we played. But after that Pittsburgh game (a 74-65 UConn victory on March 3), all that went away."
And they have their coach to thank for that, bad back and all.
"I knew who they wanted to be, we just had to find a way," Calhoun said. "You’re looking at a little different basketball team than maybe you saw during the year, and that’s good. I’m not talking about making shots and all that kind of stuff. I’m talking, really, about just the stuff that teams win with, and we won with that stuff in the past."
UConn seems to have found that stuff once again, and that has Calhoun gleaming with pride.