UConn survives wild comeback attempt by rivals Providence, reach Big East Tournament

In Sport

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A grudge match was guaranteed, because their story wasn’t over. Providence College and the University of Connecticut (UConn) had two dramatically different results in their two regular-season matchups and things had to be settled with a third game on Thursday afternoon.

The two bitter rivals separated by less than 60 miles of US Route 44 through the forested north of Rhode Island and the eastern Connecticut countryside exchanged heavy blows to each other in their two regular season matchups. What better place to throw another than history’s greatest boxing venue.

First, Providence took a home victory front of an incendiary crowd at Amica Mutual Pavilion by a score of 73-61. Then, nearly two months later, the Huskies returned the favor in front of a raucous, $2 beer-fueled fanbase at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs by a 87-69 blowout.

Yes, a grudge match was guaranteed. The Friars and the Huskies haven’t met in the Big East Tournament since 1998 – which ended with a UConn win, en route to the school’s third conference title. Not only were the teams deadlocked on the season, they’re deadlocked across their history in the Big East Tournament at two wins a piece. The story didn’t have its end until this afternoon.

In front of a wild crowd at Madison Square Garden, UConn went up early, but had to stave off an inspired Providence comeback attempt to take a close victory, 73-66. The Huskies had a 26 point lead at their peak, but saw the Friars crawl back to within five.

Connecticut saw a 26-point lead crumble, but held on for a 73-66 victory Thursday afternoon

Connecticut saw a 26-point lead crumble, but held on for a 73-66 victory Thursday afternoon

Madison Square Garden became a madhouse- as raucous fans could have deafened the place

Madison Square Garden became a madhouse- as raucous fans could have deafened the place

The turnout by the fans from Storrs, Connecticut offered more of a reason why UConn fans have christened Madison Square Garden as ‘Gampel South’.

Anyone who needs further evidence of that need only look back at the second weekend of the 2014 NCAA Tournament – when crowds donned in National flag blue drowned out both Iowa State and Michigan State, powering their team on to what would be their fourth national title.

But the fans who traveled all the way from Rhode Island’s capital were not silent. Friars fans are equally known for their ability to blow the roof off a building. Just look back on that UConn game in Providence that could very well have caused an earthquake due to the noise.

The same crowds turned out today. For a game played on a Thursday at mid-afternoon, the Garden was about 60 percent full around the 12 minute mark of the first matchup of the day in the form of Marquette v. St. Johns.

With the building full as the Golden Eagles and Red Storm played in overtime, impatient Huskies fans began chanting.

By the time the pre-game festivities were underway, both sets of fans were fully engaged – as were the players who hoped a victory here could turn the tide of the season’s series. Both regular-season games saw the winning teams have four players with double-digit points.

They went back and forth at the very beginning of the first half. After scoring quickly, both teams went on lengthy droughts. Providence went on a dry spell of over four minutes before Devin Carter hit a three. In that time, they continually turned the ball over – as UConn punctuated with an Andre Jackson dunk.

The Garden’s famous concave roof was not safe from the noise. A 3-pointer from UConn’s transfer guard Tristen Newton to make it a 16-7 game gave the building its true coliseum feel. An explosion of sound was sustained from all corners of the room as it reflected down onto the court.

Dunks from the high-flying Andre Jackson Jr. (44) sparked early momentum for UConn

Dunks from the high-flying Andre Jackson Jr. (44) sparked early momentum for UConn

UConn guard Tristen Newton

UConn guard Joey Calcaterra

Dagger threes from Tristen Newton (2) and Joey Calcaterra (3) extended the Huskies’ lead

The proverbial fighters continued their sparring, but before long, UConn started landing uppercuts. A triple from San Diego transfer Joey Calcaterra put UConn up by eight just beyond the halfway point of the first quarter. A block by Huskies star junior Adama Sanogo continued to raise the pressure and the volume.

By the time that Providence had broken its second four-minute scoring drought, the under-four minute media timeout had taken place and UConn was up by ten. Providence hit two of their next four shots after that – bringing the game back under control for the moment. Then UConn began to build momentum.

Starting with a Jackson dunk, a Friars turnover led to a Jordan Hawkins triple. A missed shot from Providence saw Calcaterra drain another from long range and at that moment, the Huskies were in heaven. Players screamed as hard as the fans. Head coach Dan Hurley, a Seton Hall graduate, pumped the crowd up.

As the half closed, UConn was well set in the lead with a 35-19 advantage. An outstanding first-half rebounding performance from Jackson saw him have nine boards – the same as everyone on the Friars combined up to that point.

Providence forward Bryce Hopkins – who averages 8.5 rebounds a game, good for second best in the conference – didn’t walk away with a single board in the first half.

The same trend continued to start the second half – when back-to-back threes from freshman Alex Karaban and Newton started the Huskies off right. By the under 16-minute media timeout, UConn was up 21 as Providence had only seven points to the Huskies’ 12. That lead grew to 26 when a deep shot from Texas A&M transfer Nahiem Alleyne put them up 58-32 at the 12:31 mark of the second half.

It was at that moment that the Friars turned the ship around. Providence tried to spark a comeback when former UConn guard Corey Floyd Jr. grabbed a basket for the Friars to end a 6-0 Huskies run. 

UConn guard Jordan Hawkins led the way for the Huskies with a 19-point performance

UConn guard Jordan Hawkins led the way for the Huskies with a 19-point performance

But Providence started to come back thanks to clutch shots from players like Noah Locke (10)

But Providence started to come back thanks to clutch shots from players like Noah Locke (10)

Bryce Hopkins (23) had a slow first half, but came to life in the second - ending with 16 points

Bryce Hopkins (23) had a slow first half, but came to life in the second – ending with 16 points

UConn head coach Dan Hurley referred to the refereeing in the second as a 'whistle-fest'

UConn head coach Dan Hurley referred to the refereeing in the second as a ‘whistle-fest’

Forward Ed Croswell further added to the barrage and guard Noah Locke kept the spark growing with a crucial 3-pointer. With the Friars down by 18 at that point, it wasn’t a cure-all, but it was a way to start to build towards something greater.

And from that point on, it became a war of attrition. Referees began to use their whistles more often – with Hurley calling it a ‘whistle-fest’ in a post-game press conference.

The game became physical. Elbows under the basket became more common and defensive schemes were switched – especially by Providence, who began bringing double-teams.

Hopkins began to string a good game together – going from 3 points and no rebounds in the first half, to finishing the game with 16 points, seven boards, and three assists.

A 20-5 Providence run over the course of six-and-a-half minutes cut UConn’s lead down to 11 with just over five minutes to go.

‘I thought the ball had a little music to it when it started to move,’ Providence head coach Ed Cooley remarked. ‘It sounded like Barry White out there when the ball was moving. Everybody’s voice got deep; everybody got energy off of it.’

Madison Square Garden became feral. It seemed as if the building would fall to the ground. Wild sequences of fans on both sides screaming for travels, fouls and buckets bordered on insanity as the Friars scored six points in the course of a minute to cut the deficit to just five with 3:33 to go.

Teams started trading shots as time wound down. Hawkins hit a three. Locke hit a three. Sanogo’s layup put UConn up 68-61 with 1:39 to go. Hopkins’ spinning basket to convert the layup brought it back within five points at the 1:26 mark.

As time wound down, Providence head coach said the team started 'playing with a little music'

As time wound down, Providence head coach said the team started ‘playing with a little music’

That 'Barry White' sounding play from Providence brought them within five points of UConn

That ‘Barry White’ sounding play from Providence brought them within five points of UConn

But a late 3-pointer from freshman Alex Karaban (11) calmed UConn enough for the win

But a late 3-pointer from freshman Alex Karaban (11) calmed UConn enough for the win

But it was at this time that Cooley used his final timeout. With his players left to fend on their own, desperation set in. Karaban hit a three with a minute to go. Locke responded in kind for PC with 0:48 to go.

But as the game boiled down to its end, foul shots proved to be the difference. Newton drained the front end of a 1-and-1 and then hit the second to go up 73-66. Any last attempts from Providence to change that were unsuccessful and the UConn Huskies broke the season and tournament deadlock. Hawkins ended the day for UConn with a team high 19 points.

Cooley said it was an attitude adjustment that led to the comeback, and credited UConn for not just being a good team – but the best in the country, something he credits with the Huskies return to the conference they used to dominate.

‘The reason [UConn is] nationally ranked and [why] you’ve seen a total transformation [is] the power of the Big East brand at its greatest,’ Cooley remarked. ‘Because to me I think they’re the best team in America.’

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