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For UConn men, those were the days the world stopped

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published March 13. 2013 4:00AM   Updated March 13. 2013 6:20AM
Mary Altaffer/ AP File Photo
UConn's Kemba Walker, center, celebrates scoring the game-winning basket over Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament men's basketball quarterfinals in 2011. That year, the Huskies won five games in fives days, sweeping to a tournament victory and following that with a national championship.
Huskies not eligible for Big East tournament, but will savor the memories always

Over the years, they became experts at throwing post-Big East tournament championship game parties.

Now the UConn Huskies sit home without an invitation to this week's farewell party because of a postseason ban. They'll never again experience the electric tournament atmosphere at Madison Square Garden, never hold another net cutting ceremony celebrating being the king of the Big East neighborhood.

A new world, new conference awaits them next season.

But no one can take away their magical tournament memories.

"It seemed like the world stopped for the Big East tournament," said Kevin Freeman, who shares the program record for most Big East tournament games with 11. "It was awesome. Even the bus ride down, there was kind of a chill and excitement.

"I can't believe it's over."

Those memories will last longer than any conference affiliation during these unstable times. No Big East program has filled more scrapbook pages with memorable moments than UConn, which is tied with Georgetown for tournament titles with seven.

As the tournament grew in stature, so did the UConn program.

"It was special," said Jim Calhoun, who retired last fall after coaching UConn for 26 years. "I remember the first time (at the tournament), the big fight was not to play in the 8-9 game. A couple of years later, we were playing the weekend against Syracuse and Georgetown for the Big East championship in 1990. That will always be etched in my mind.

"The six overtimes will always be etched in my mind. Ray Allen's shot will be etched in my mind. No question Kemba (Walker) and his companions' week was as special as anybody has ever had in any tournament, anywhere.

"So all those memories, the coaches, from Louie (Carnesecca), to John (Thompson), to young John (Thompson), to Jimmy (Boeheim), (Rick) Pitino, (Rollie) Massimino, you go through the coaches in this league, it's been incredibly special.

"I really do hate seeing it come to an end, but obviously it is."

Calhoun and two former members of Big East tourney championship teams, Freeman and Ricky Moore - now both on coach Kevin Ollie's staff - recently talked about their Big East tournament experiences.

For Moore, his fondest recollection was the much-anticipated 1996 championship game against Georgetown. It was an instant classic.

Both programs were ranked in the top five and featured Ray Allen and Georgetown's Allen Iverson, two future NBA all-stars.

"For a small town guy like me going into the bright lights of the Garden, it was a great feeling," Moore said. "We took a really good team into the Garden to compete. ? I tell people all the time that atmosphere that night was incredible."

Trailing 74-63 with less than five minutes left, the Huskies mounted one of the program's all-time comebacks, scoring the game's final 12 points. Moore helped contain Iverson, Kirk King provided a surprising offensive spark and Allen - the Big East MVP that year - delivered the final blow.

While in mid-air, Allen looked to pass but changed his mind, firing up an awkward off-balance shot for the game-winning basket with 13.6 seconds left. Shockingly, UConn won 75-74.

"I think that was an alley-oop to nobody," Moore said with a smile. "Fortunately, it went and everyone went crazy."

Calhoun ranks the win as one of the best in his storied coaching career.

"The game was over because (the Hoyas) were so good," Calhoun said. "That was one of the great comebacks, a great game with a great atmosphere in the (Big East) neighborhood."

UConn had its share of tournament heroes, as six different Huskies took home the Dave Gavitt trophy for most valuable player.

Ben Gordon earned the nickname Madison Square Gordon for his show-stopping performance. In 2004, he scored 81 points in three games and won MVP, as UConn beat Pittsburgh 61-58 for the title. Taliek Brown's desperation shot-clock beating 35-footer with 34.8 seconds left clinched a 74-65 double-overtime title game win over Pittsburgh in 2002.

Freeman grabbed the spotlight in 1999, joining the MVP list. After squeaking past Seton Hall (57-56) in the quarterfinals, the future national champions dismantled Syracuse (71-50) in the semifinals and St. John's (82-63) in the final.

Fueled by an All-Big East team snub, Freeman averaged 17.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in three games.

"It's one of my most cherished memories," Freeman said. "I felt at that moment I was on top of the college basketball world by winning that MVP. I can remember the Syracuse game, I dunked it and I can remember the whole crowd chanting, 'MVP.'

"It was the most overwhelming feeling that I ever felt in basketball, period."

The Big East tournament always meant a great deal to Calhoun, who emphasized the importance of winning the tournament more than most coaches.

He loved everything from the pre-tournament banquet to anticipation building during a pregame shoot-around, to the thrill of playing in the semifinals on Friday night.

"I liked the semifinal atmosphere because it was so festive," Calhoun said. "When you come in on that bus and you come in the player entrance, it was alive. You could feel the electricity. ? It was incredibly exciting.

"Except for national championships and Final Fours, there isn't anything more exciting than that."

While the riveting six overtime loss (127-117) to Syracuse in the 2009 quarterfinals is arguably the greatest game in tournament history, because of the outcome the game doesn't rank near the top of Calhoun's tournament memories.

UConn's first and last Big East tournament title runs mean the most to Calhoun.

In 1990, UConn finally broke into the championship club by beating Georgetown and then Syracuse, two established powerhouse programs. It was a significant milestone for the Huskies.

"The first one broke the barrier that Connecticut had since we entered the Big East," Calhoun said. "We made a statement after four years that we were here to stay."

The final one in 2011 also is considered the most unexpected, as the Huskies made tournament history by winning an unprecedented five games in five days to capture the championship, capping it off by beating Louisville 69-66.

Along the way, UConn defeated four ranked teams behind tournament MVP Walker. In one of the great tournament moments, Walker hit clutch step-back jumper at the buzzer to beat Pittsburgh 76-74 in the quarterfinals.

The winning streak lasted all the way through the national championship game.

"The last one was just such a blessing and gift by a group of guys, led by Kemba, just playing great," Calhoun said. "Five games in five days and really just four terrific games. Three down the stretch were incredible.

"I remember the feeling just a great sense of accomplishment. It was really, really special to end up (celebrating) at Madison Square in the middle of the court."

The new Big East will hold its tournament at the Madison Square Garden, but it will never be the same.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh are off to the Atlantic Coast Conference. UConn will be in a conference to be named later. Those three programs alone combined to win 14 titles over the 34-year history of the tournament.

"It's going to be difficult to duplicate that," Calhoun said. "If we continue to evolve and move, whatever the case may be, maybe something else down the line will be very special."

Freeman just wishes the 2012-13 Huskies had a chance to experience the thrill of competing in the Big East tournament one last time.

"I feel bad for these guys that worked so hard this year and don't even get a chance to get a sniff of it this year," Freeman said. "Omar Calhoun is from New York City and came to UConn to play in the Big East tournament and will never get the feeling of playing in it."

g.keefe@theday.com

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