UConn eager for NCAA Tournament redemption

BUFFALO – That might sound a little obsessive, sure, but then you might have forgotten the place that Connecticut basketball plays in the day-to-day lives of the state’s citizens. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the man who coaches you, a prince of trainer kings who nonetheless trains every minute as if someone is blocking the gym forever.

In June, folks on the Storrs campus noticed something near the basketball offices. T-shirts that said “45:07” sprouted. The clock on the scoreboard in the Gampel Pavilion was frozen with four digits – 45:07. Screensavers would bounce that number – “45:07” – on their dozing laptops.

“These guys,” Danny Hurley said Wednesday, “remember.”

Here’s what they remember: With 5 minutes and 7 seconds remaining in the Huskies Big East semi-final game at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2021, UConn led 53-50 over Creighton, with the winner in the final having a shot at upstart Georgetown received . But the Bluejays beat the Huskies 9-3, won the game 59-56and probably knocked down UConn a seed line or two in the NCAA.

There UConn was pretty as a 7 seed thoroughly outplayed by Maryland in 10th place in the first round of the East Regional. And just like that, a time of sweat and toil had passed. Just like that, their first season was back after flying through the wilds of the UK and the feeling was a huge abyss of loss.

All in 45 minutes and 7 seconds.

Connecticut Huskies head coach Dan Hurley addresses the media
Dan Hurley doesn’t need to tell his players what’s at stake in Buffalo.
Getty Images

“That number is stuck in everyone’s brain,” Hurley had said over the summer, smiling a little at the idea but deadly serious in effect. “I know that as a coach you sometimes think you can call tomorrow; “45:07” makes me call today. Maybe one of our players wants to stop a training session. Then they look at the scoreboard – 45:07 – and finish their work.”

They’re back, this time as a 5 seed in the West, this time after a peak 23-9 season a glorious fight with Villanova in a deafening Madison Square Garden on Friday. They are a better team than last year in a difficult draw. About 5 seeds are always knocked out by a 12, and the state of New Mexico will be looking to get into that slipper. If the Huskies survive this, they’ll likely have to deal with the Arkansas matchup nightmare. And then, later, Duke and Gonzaga.

“Before you talk about starting in this tournament,” Hurley said, “you have to win your first game. And that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Actually, it’s all they’ve thought about since March, since Mackey Arena, since the Huskies shot 32.3 percent against the Terrapins and fell into the abyss. This is Hurley’s fourth NCAA as a coach (his second at UConn after two in Rhode Island). He played as a duo at Seton Hall. He could tell his players chapter and verse exactly what was at stake.

Or he let the players’ own desire for salvation get the better of them.

“In many ways, they’re similar to us,” said UConn’s Isaiah Whaley of the state of New Mexico. “The war begins the moment the ball goes up. It’s going to be huge for us to unpack and it depends on who’s the more desperate, tougher team.

Said Hurley, “I think this is going to be the most intense game of the first round.”

You don’t have to worry about UConn in this context, and certainly not about the coach. They will show up. They will wear their game faces. They will play with energy and effort because they have played like this all year and they will not be completely swallowed up by the moment.

“We weren’t blown away by a sold-out Garden and Villanova on a Friday night,” Hurley said, and the implication was simple: do your best, but don’t expect the huskies to blink.

They blinked last year and paid for it with their season, and for 52 weeks the people involved in Connecticut basketball have been waiting for a repeat, a chance to rewind the last 45 minutes and 7 seconds. Thursday, in the KeyBank Arena, they can finally write a new chapter, they can finally survive the landing. UConn eager for NCAA Tournament redemption


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