If you grow up in New York, it’s the kind of situation you dream about: a near-capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden, a tie score and the ball in your hands at the free throw line. Connecticut freshman Christian Vital is from Queens and the Connecticut freshman got to live it out on Monday night.
The 6-2 guard snaked between Syracuse big men, grabbing an offensive rebound and drawing a foul from Tyus Battle with 2.2 seconds to play. After an Orange timeout he went to the line and hit both free throws, lifting the Huskies to a 52-50 Tire Pros Classic victory before a raucous 15,347.
They were the only two points he scored for the game after going 0-for-6 from the floor in 28 minutes.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie looked at his team in the timeout and told them they would win. The veterans in the huddle told Vital “we’re in your city — take us home,” he said. “I was able to do that.”
Syracuse had a final chance but Tyler Lydon’s baseball pass was tipped by 7-foot Amida Brimah and Rodney Purvis corralled it at the buzzer.
While the game featured the sounds of an epic battle between the two former Big East schools — who played a six-overtime all-timer during the 2009 Big East Tournament — and it had the ending of a classic, it would be hard to use either of those words. UConn (4-4) shot a miserable 31.4 percent from the floor and committed 13 turnovers that led to 12 Orange points. Syracuse shot an anemic 25.9 percent from the floor; it entered play making 43 percent on three-pointers but finished 6-for-26 beyond the arc.
Purvis had 21 points and Jalen Adams added 16 points with seven assists for the Huskies. Andrew white had 14 points and DaJuan Coleman had 10 points and 16 rebounds for Syracuse (5-3).
In the bigger picture, this could end up being a huge for Connecticut. The Huskies lost three key players — forwards Terry Laurier and Diarra Mamadou and American Athletic Conference preseason Freshman of the Year Alterique Gilbert — to season-ending injuries. “We’ve stayed positive despite it and now I wouldn’t put a ceiling on this team,” Purvis said.
Syracuse is yet to get a signature win.
“We can’t score,” Orange coach Jim Boeheim said. “Our offense has not been good enough to win games — any games.”
Syracuse led by 11 with just over 13 minutes left and gave the last of it back in a 14-0 run where the Huskies went up 49-44 on an Adams three with 2:58 left. White evened the score at 50 on a three-pointer with nine seconds to play, one of only two Orange baskets in the last 9:05.
With another overtime game dancing in the heads of crowd when Purvis missed a three-pointer on the ensuing possession, Vital stepped in.
“I thought it was in there, but my instinct is to always crash and get a rebound,” Vital said. “Fortunately I was able to get it.”