College Basketball
Dan Hurley, Rick Pitino and the Man in the Red Blazer: An epic Friday at MSG
College Basketball

Dan Hurley, Rick Pitino and the Man in the Red Blazer: An epic Friday at MSG

Updated Mar. 16, 2024 1:05 p.m. ET

It felt like the closest you're going to get to the 1980s Big East on Friday night at Madison Square Garden. Like the days of Big John, Rollie Massimino, Lou Carnesecca, a young Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, and even for a brief time at Providence, that Pitino character.

Except on this night, Pitino was still playing one of the lead roles in the show, now at 71 and leading St. John's. But he wasn't the main star. That belonged to Dan Hurley, whose UConn Huskies continued to show why they're arguably the most complete team in the country with a 95-90 win over St. John's to advance to the program's first Big East championship game appearance since Kemba Walker and the Huskies won both the conference and national titles in 2011.

The highlight of the night, though, was produced not even 12 minutes into Friday evening's semifinal. After a foul call on the Red Storm's Joel Soriano on a shot attempt from UConn's Cam Spencer, Pitino said some…not so kind words to the officials, prompting a technical foul.

Just when it looked like Hurley had the early leg up on the refs with the six-point lead, he was whistled moments later for a comment made at official James Breeding.


But what, why?

It stems from a man in a red blazer. Tom O'Grady, one of Pitino's backers from his Louisville days, was seated courtside in between the scorer's table and a separate mini-table nestled by the St. John's bench. Much like the NBA with the super fancy courtside seats where you are essentially seated as if you were one of the people on a team, the Big East mirrors that alignment at Madison Square Garden for their conference tournament, not unlike other leagues. What that also means, though, is that it's an intimate setting. And Hurley was not pleased at O'Grady's behavior so he decided to attempt to let an official know about it.

"Obviously the place was in a frenzy when Coach (Pitino) got his technical," said Hurley, whose team moved to 30-3 with the victory. "And then there was a guy -- there was a short guy in a red blazer that was on the court yelling at the refs, and then he started yelling at me, you know, and moving in my direction. So I was just kind of pointing out to (official) James (Breeding) that he was behaving worse than Coach Pitino. I was really just trying to help the officials, you know. They might not have seen it. And then I got a technical for pointing out more increasingly aggressive fans. At courtside, you shouldn't end up on the court."

At the end of the half, Hurley and Madison Square Garden security were conversing about the fan. After O'Grady didn't appear back at his seat for the opening minutes of the second half, it looked like Hurley may have gotten him removed from his seat. But it was quite the contrary!

"I kept him in," Hurley said. "They were going to eject him from the game. I went over there to tell the ushers I wanted him to stay, not because I thought he was a good guy. I thought it might be bad luck. (Laughs). Karma."

O'Grady, who organized and held a first known media scrum for a fan in the 45-year history of the Big East Tournament in the back of the building following the game, had a very different tale to tell.

"I did not say a word to Dan (Hurley)," O'Grady said. "I said to the referee that he was out of the box, and the ref gave him a T. If someone was cussing at him, it wasn't me. Coach (Pitino) is my best friend. Do you think I would ever do that to another coach? There's no way."

Hurley's story is quite the opposite:

"It was a lot of expletives. And, again, like all you'll see with the camera -- you're not seeing what I'm -- what's in front of me. And I'm probably now the boy who cried wolf because of late game. But I promise you if we play Marquette tomorrow night, there will be no incident because those people are incredibly classy fans and we have incredible respect for them."

So, there's O'Grady's side, Hurley's side and the truth.

When UConn's Tristen Newton was asked about all of the drama, the senior point guard dead panned with his response.

"Honestly, today, I thought he was a little more calm," he said to a chorus of laughter.

As for the game out on the court, the fact of the matter is when Connecticut plays offense like they did on Friday night, forget about your chances. In fact, it's telling about how good a bubbly St. John's team may be right now that they only lost 95-90 on Friday night. But UConn just continues to be an avalanche, and as a result, everybody out outside of the state and in their fanbase despises them. They've risen back to being college basketball's northeast evil empire. That's the reception you'll get from others when you've won five national titles since 1999 and have a great shot to earn a sixth.

The Huskies shot 57 percent from the floor, 50 percent from 3-point territory and 92 percent from the free throw line. St. John's managed to go 45 percent from the field, 46 percent from downtown and 89 percent from the line, but UConn was just slightly better.


Because right now, Newton and Cam Spencer are as good as any duo in America. They combined for 45 points and 18 assists in the win, with Spencer delivering a career-best nine dishes. Every time the Huskies needed that big shot, the toughness of their guards and stretch forward Alex Karaban (14 points) showed down the stretch.

With the win, UConn moved to 6-0 at Madison Square Garden on the season, with the Empire Classic title, Jimmy V Classic win over North Carolina and a win over St. John's accompanying this week's 2-0 performance in the BET.

Even after winning a national title last year, a 13-7 finish in their league produced disappointment and motivation for this season.

"I mean UConn is a historic program, home of a lot of championships," said Newton, who is averaging 19 points, seven assists and seven rebounds per game this week. "Having the National Championship last year was great. But we've been playing all year to win multiple championships, and this is one of the stops, and throughout the two years we've been making a lot of history. So I guess tomorrow after the game we'll try to make more history."

And to be 40 minutes away from doing something for the first time since "Cardiac Kemba," as he's known around Storrs as, feels pretty historic.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him at @John_Fanta.

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