Syracuse and UConn put on a show for the ages

March, 13, 2009
NEW YORK -- It was a fingertip, probably less. Probably more like the tip of the point of an un-filed fingernail.

If that little sliver of DNA wasn't still attached to the basketball, Eric Devendorf's shot counts and the game ends in regulation. The image of Devendorf, standing atop the press table at Madison Square Garden screaming as he's bear-hugged by his teammates, makes "SportsCenter."

Instead, Devendorf is a footnote, quite literally last night's news, in a game that started on March 12 and ended as March 13 already was chugging along toward dawn.

Epic? Classic? Not good enough -- not for a six-overtime game where skill gave way to will somewhere in the third overtime and will gave way to survival by the sixth.

The game lasted three hours, 46 minutes. The final box score and play-by-play was a meaty 10 pages, type filling up the front and back of each. Combined, the two teams attempted 209 shots. They took 93 free throws. Eight players fouled out.

The Syracuse Orange turned to pulp.

When the horn finally -- mercifully -- sounded at 1:22 a.m., Syracuse emerged the winner over Connecticut, 127-117. The Madison Square Garden game operations people, who had cleverly mixed in music ("In the Midnight Hour," "After Midnight" and "All Night Long") as the game wore on, turned to the Garden's regular closeout song, Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" at the buzzer, but instead of the end of a game, it looked like last call in the arena.

Bleary-eyed fans headed to the exits, and the Syracuse players fell into one another, too exhausted to muster enough energy to celebrate.

"It would have been a lot better if they would have counted Eric's shot," Jim Boeheim said. "We could have gone home two hours ago."

Instead, after a tense handful of minutes, referee Bob Donato waved off Devendorf's 3-pointer, signaling the start of overtime and the Orange and Huskies' slow trudge into history. It was the longest game in Big East history, the longest in NCAA history in 28 years, just one OT shy of a 1981 game between Cincinnati and Bradley for the all-time record … and the very definition of Jim McKay's thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

The Orange were almost punch-drunk giddy and the stoic Boeheim on the verge of silly. Syracuse's postgame interview session felt more like a stand-up act.

"It's a lot better to win the greatest game ever, but it was getting to the point of let's go home," Boeheim said.

"That's because I kept missing layups," Paul Harris interjected.

"Which one? You missed four in a row," Boeheim smiled.

It was far less amusing to Connecticut. New York is becoming UConn's Waterloo.

The Huskies have now suffered four consecutive first-day exits from the Big East tournament, three at the hands of Syracuse. No one on the current roster has ever won a conference tourney game here.

A game after kissing goodbye to their dreams of a regular-season Big East crown with a loss at Pitt, the Huskies watched their hopes of a conference tourney title dry up here.

Connecticut won't look back on this game and see a plucky team rewriting record books. It will see a team that blew too many opportunities, that missed 18 free throws and blew a six-point lead in overtime No. 4.

"Quite frankly, I can't wait to get the hell out of here," Jim Calhoun said. "There was something certainly about the game, and I'm sure in the summertime I'll look back and say what a historic battle it was. Right now it's a loss."

It is, and while Calhoun's mood is understandable, it does an injustice to the effort both teams gave. Every game ends with a winner and a loser, but somehow judging these players that way after this seems unfair.

By game's end, Syracuse sported a lineup that included walk-on Justin Thomas, who enjoyed his career-high on senior night -- four points and three minutes. Connecticut's Scottie Haralson, who appeared in 13 games all season, was launching 3-pointers.

Stanley Robinson and Kemba Walker each went to the bench at one point, their faces pinched in pain from cramps -- and as Jonny Flynn lined up for his free throws in the sixth overtime, he bent over and grimaced, overcome as well.

Seven different guys would play more than 50 minutes, with Flynn maxing out the list at 67, more than a game and a half.

Yet even as made buckets became harder and harder to come by, as legs grew deader and deader, the level of play never changed.

"I can't even feel my legs right now," Flynn said. "The feeling started, I don't know when. The guys kept saying we fought this long, we can't give the game away."

There were probably 30 game-changing plays, made shots and missed shots, big rebounds and foolish turnovers that prolonged the agony or delayed the ecstasy, depending on your frame of reference.

The highlights:

Overtime No. 1: Flynn drops off to a wide-open Rick Jackson for a dunk with four seconds left to knot the score at 81.

Overtime No. 2: Kemba Walker misses a jumper. Stanley Robinson gets the rebound, but misses the putback. The ball comes back to Walker but Jackson blocks it. Connecticut corrals another rebound and Walker misses an off-kilter 3-pointer. The buzzer sounds and the game is tied at 87.

Overtime No. 3: Andy Rautins uses a screen to free himself for a wide-open 3-pointer on the wing and locks the game at 98 with 11.7 seconds left.

Twenty-eight years ago, Rautins' father, Leo, tipped in a buzzer-beater to topple Villanova in the 1981 Big East tourney championship game in three overtimes in what was then the longest conference tournament game in history.

When A.J. Price misses a 3-pointer and Jeff Adrien a rebound jumper for Connecticut, Andy helps bump dad's game from the record books.

Overtime No. 4: It's become time to notice these things. It's 12:35 a.m. Devendorf makes it 104-all with a drive to the hoop with 1:51 left. After Connecticut misses, Harris has a chance to win it. He misses a layup, rebounds his miss, goes up again and has his shot blocked by Gavin Edwards.

Flynn hurls his signature headband into the stands in frustration and a Madison Square Garden employee standing on the court shakes his head and mutters, "Can't we just go to a shootout?"

Overtime No. 5: It's now 12:48 a.m. Flynn ties it at 110 with two free throws with 20 seconds left. Connecticut misses three shots on the final possession.

Overtime No. 6: Tip time, 1:09 a.m. And finally what everyone has been waiting for -- a team to take command. Somehow it's Syracuse. UConn still has Price, Walker, Adrien, Craig Austrie and Edwards in the game.

The Orange are down to the depths of their bench, with Flynn, Harris, Rautins, Joseph and the walk-on Thomas on the court. Rautins hits a 3-pointer to start the OT, Harris follows it up with a jumper and the beginning of the end unravels.

"I've got no words to even describe it," said Boeheim, a mouthful of a sentence for the Hall-of-Famer. "I've never been prouder of any team I've ever coached."

A year ago, Georgia was forced to play two games in one day, courtesy of the act of God that hit Atlanta just in time for the SEC tournament -- the high winds from a nearby tornado doing damage to the roof during a game.

Now Syracuse will follow the same masochistic path forged by Georgia. At 9 p.m. on Friday, less than 20 hours after they walked off the court, the Orange will face West Virginia in the semifinals.

Perhaps this too was an act of God. Maybe the Holy One sent some divine magic into the Garden, turning makes into misses and misses into makes. To give what many consider the best version ever of the Big East Conference its best game in history.

How else to explain the breadth of a fingernail standing between a 40-minute game and a 70-minute one?

Dana O'Neil | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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