UConn Huskies confident Big East Tournament loss to ’Cuse will pay off

Matt Stout

Kemba Walker sat hunched over in his chair Sunday night, feeling the effects of the battle his body endured last week.

He wasn’t talking about the strep throat either.

“I’m still recovering,” the freshman guard said, referring to the UConn men’s basketball team’s 127-117 six-overtime loss to Syracuse on Thursday in the Big East quarterfinals. Walker was three days removed from playing 52 of a possible 70 minutes.

“My body’s still aching a little bit,” he said. “All it takes is time.”

Surprisingly, there’s actually some left after the epic clash, which gobbled up three hours and 46 minutes and stretched into the wee hours of Friday morning.

But as the Huskies would have it, they remained, too, drained and beaten following their fifth straight Big East tournament loss but still strong enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

They’re perhaps better for going through it all, too.

“I really came to appreciate without any prompting … just how proud I was really of our kids,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who directly following the game brushed off any flowery description, calling it a loss and nothing more.

But after spending time the following two days at his home in Madison, walking the shores of the Long Island Sound with his wife, Pat, Calhoun said he gained perspective of the night.

That was driven home Sunday when the selection committee put the Huskies (27-4) atop the West region, where they’ll open first-round play Thursday in Philadelphia against 16th-seeded Chattanooga.

“I think this team’s body of work is great, but they also have some grit to them,” Calhoun said. “That might have helped us in a strange sort of way, even though I said before how bitter it was. And it was bitter. ... But never have I been involved with a greater test of what an athlete has inside. So as we leave for Philadelphia (today), I know I’m taking a pretty gritty bunch of guys.”

More than anything Sunday, UConn players pointed to their toughness Thursday and their ability to fight in the face of adversity. Six players played 46 or more minutes, including 61 by A.J. Price.

“It showed that guys really wanted it,” Jeff Adrien said.

Unfortunately, it’s about all they can really boast entering the tournament. UConn has lost its last two games overall — a first this season — and as a program, it owns zero postseason wins since 2006.

So momentum isn’t an asset. Other things can be.

“Guts,” Stanley Robinson said. “We can just take (that we were) 5-as-1, too, because I think everybody did not give up on the court. I’m proud of our teammates. Even though we did have a loss, it’s one of the greatest games I ever played.”

Robinson, literally, had one of its best performances. With 28 points and 14 rebounds, he combined his athleticism with heady plays and efficient possessions, which has been a rarity at times this year. Meanwhile, Craig Austrie, mired in a shooting slump, shot just 2-of-13, but hit two big 3s. And Gavin Edwards, used sparingly in recent weeks, finished with 10 rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes.

Much like the preseason, the college basketball postseason is driven by fresh starts and positive outlooks.

The Huskies are filling up on theirs.

“We probably need to do everything (that’s) humanly possible to get our confidence back, to get a little swagger back,” Calhoun said. “And it’s hard to do that as you start an NCAA tournament game. But it’s our opportunity, just as it is Chattanooga’s or anybody else’s. It’s 65 of us jumping into it, starting (today) and we have an opportunity. I really hope this team makes the most of it.”

Calhoun doesn’t have to explain that to Price. For all the senior guard has experienced in his career, he has played just nine minutes in the NCAA tournament, which came to an abrupt halt last March in Tampa when he tore the ACL in his left knee against San Diego.

His summer of rehab, an up-and-down regular season and two 30-point explosions in the last month have led to this: A return to the first round.

“Definitely want to get out there more than nine minutes,” Price said.

How about 61?

Price smiled. “Not that long.”

Norwich Bulletin