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Make that 14,287 reasons for relevance

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published January 15. 2013 4:00AM

Hartford - You had almost forgotten the place could sound like this, all the roars and howls of 14,287 believers rattling the walls at the XL Center Monday night. UConn up six on the nation's No. 1 team, quicker, thicker Louisville.

There was apple-cheeked Niels Giffey sticking his nose in to rebound among the redwoods.

The occasional flare up from Rick Pitino.

Foul trouble for Peyton Siva.

Was this really going to happen?

The Huskies, who have gone from overdogs to lovable underdogs, taking down No. 1?

Yet just when gallery reached full throat and was rising in expectation, Louisville discovered the extra gear it (and only it, as it turned out) could summon. The Cardinals ran away with a 73-58 win, turning the XL more somber, as if the CD suddenly switched from AC/DC to Mozart.

Now this much we know: UConn didn't get to be UConn celebrating almosts and nice tries. And Kevin Ollie might even scoff at the following suggestion. But the point of the night wasn't as much the final score - Louisville is really good - as it was the very idea that 14,287 people thought the Huskies could truly, honestly win.

That's a win right there.

Because who among us, a few months ago, even thought UConn would be competitive with Louisville?

Maybe a few of the ardent optimists. Or the blowhards who rarely practice restraint because restraint rarely merits attention. So they're loud and wacky just for the cheap I-told-you-so at the end.

But the rest of us mortals? Please. Our expectations of this team weren't very high. Unproven coach, puny frontcourt and nothing to play for at the end.

But they've surprised us, all the way to Monday night, when they were riding the rainbow of a road win at Notre Dame from the weekend.

UConn has already succeeded in such a major way this season. The Huskies have stayed relevant in a year they could have - temporarily anyway - faded into irrelevance.

This just in: Big Monday with Sean, Raff and Jay inside a rollicking house is hardly irrelevant.

"The crowd was wonderful," Ollie said. "I'm kind of disappointed we couldn't give them a win because they were so great."

They couldn't give them a win because the Cardinals wouldn't allow it. Louisville is national championship caliber, especially if Gorgui Dieng, the starting center, shows up. Even on a night he went 2-for-8, he hauled in 16 rebounds. They have a 250-pound forward named Chane Behanan, whose girth the Huskies could use more than a spleen.

And we haven't even mentioned the guards. Oy. We think Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright are quick? You begin all conversations about quickness with this kid Russ Smith. Ollie somewhat likened Boatright's quickness to Allen Iverson's recently. Which would put Smith somewhere north of Usain Bolt.

"They deserve to be No. 1," Ollie said. "They play hard, they play together. Whoever is open gets the ball. And Siva and Russ are two damn good guards."

Later, Ollie said of Smith: "The help (defense) was there, but sometimes he just discarded it."

Nobody knows what the rest of the season brings. Maybe UConn's guards wear down and the Huskies' relative lack of size and strength will become more glaring as the shadows lengthen and the time grows desperate for UConn's opponents and their tournament hopes.

Or maybe not.

But losing to the nation's No. 1 team that, frankly, is a lousy matchup, shouldn't be more than a hiccup. Ollie has some recruiting to do before the Huskies can honestly match Louisville. But that didn't stop 14,287 from believing.

Awesome.

"You can't control events but you can control the meaning of them," Ollie said. "Look at what we did well in first half and duplicate that. Look at what we did wrong when we gave them a spurt. You just try to bounce back, flush it down the toilet and move on to the next one."

The next one is Pittsburgh on the road Saturday.

On national television again.

Still one of the nation's best stories.

Happily relevant.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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