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Syracuse, N.Y. - In the days leading up to Wednesday's game at No. 2 Syracuse, George Blaney angrily pleaded with the Huskies to pick up their play.
Yes, the mild-mannered Blaney, UConn's associate head coach, got upset. That's like Mr. Rogers throwing a fit.
His harsh words helped propel the Huskies to play their best basketball in recent weeks, but they only did so for the final 14 minutes. Their frantic comeback from a 16-point second-half deficit still fell short.
An impressive stretch of basketball brought to UConn to the edge of pulling off an upset. Syracuse, however, made the key plays in the final minute to hold on for a 72-67 Big East Conference win before 24,847 at the Carrier Dome. The Orange (24-1, 11-1) won their 11th straight game and moved into sole possession of first place.
The Huskies (14-10, 4-7) walked away with yet another painful reminder that it takes a complete game to avoid losing. They have dropped seven of their last 10 games.
"This is what we talked about so much for two days, about playing with heart and about playing with guts and playing with fire and not allowing yourself to give in to anything," Blaney said. "Again, that's what Jim (Calhoun's) teams always do and hopefully that's what my teams always do.
"I have not been as mad at a team for a long time as much as I was mad at them the last two days, and I told them so. And we went at it pretty good about it."
Blaney, who filled in for Calhoun for the seventh straight game, pointed to a couple of fouls as examples of his team's foolish mistakes that contributed to their demise. The Huskies also finished with 17 turnovers.
Coming out of a timeout with 37 seconds remaining in a 65-65 game, Stanley Robinson (16 points) fouled Syracuse's Wes Johnson who made both free throws to hand the Orange the lead for good. Then freshman Ater Majok committed fouls on back-to-back possessions, leading to sophomore Kris Joseph making two free throws with 12 seconds left and again with six seconds remaining.
UConn had a few strong individual performances. Jerome Dyson had 19 points and eight rebounds. Kemba Walker helped fuel the comeback by scoring 10 of his 14 points in the second half.
The Huskies ran an effective and aggressive offense in the second half against a pesky 2-3 zone. They seized control of the game by tightening up on defense, forcing a season-high 20 turnovers, and controlling the boards, 26-14, after intermission. And they took advantage of catalyst Andy Rautins being on the bench in foul trouble.
Trailing 50-34 with 13:50 remaining, UConn fought back. Walker began slicing through the lane for open shots. Edwards caught the ball in the zone and found open teammates. Dyson heated up.
Dyson's 3-pointer capped a 31-15 spurt, tying the game at 65-all with 2:33 remaining.
"I thought we definitely were going to pull it off," Edwards said.
The Huskies made too many mistakes to complete the comeback. After Johnson's two free throws put the Orange ahead with 34 seconds left, UConn called timeout with 30 seconds remaining.
Walker found Dyson open on the wing. Dyson let fly a long 3-pointer, but misfired and Syracuse rebounded.
After Joseph's free throws, Walker's layup cut the deficit to 69-67 with seven seconds left, but the Huskies made one last mistake, failing to cover the deep man on the inbounds play. Majok committed an intentional foul on Joseph.
The Huskies left feeling better but without a win.
"Lately we haven't been playing hard," Walker said. "Tonight we played extremely hard tonight. We lost but we gave it our best effort."