Published March 09. 2012 4:00AM
New York - For UConn, it was a case of lost and found this week at the Big East tournament.
The ninth-seeded Huskies lost their quarterfinal game Thursday in painful fashion, failing to hold an eight-point lead in the second half.
But they found themselves along the way, winning two games to likely secure an NCAA tournament berth. They also won over their hard-to-please head coach Jim Calhoun.
They can live with falling to top-seeded Syracuse, 58-55, in an entertaining and intense tug-of-war at Madison Square Garden.
During his postgame press conference, Calhoun talked in length about his love for this team.
"The anguish I feel is disappointment for them," Calhoun said. "They were primed to do something very special and almost pulled it off.
"… No one can tell me that it wasn't a good team who was wearing blue today. Did we shoot great? No. Did we make great decisions? No. Did we play with great heart and great intensity and did we play for each other? Without a doubt."
For the third straight meeting this season, Syracuse rode superior depth, experience and an active 2-3 zone to victory. Its bench contributed 30 points, helping to wear down the Huskies (20-13). Sophomore Dion Waiters, the Big East sixth man award winner, scored a game-high 18 points, including the go-ahead basket with 5:41 remaining.
The Huskies went into a deep freeze after opening the second half with a 15-4 spurt to take a 39-31 lead - their biggest advantage - with 14:04 remaining. They suffered through a seven-minute drought without a field goal and finished shooting 34.4 percent.
Under heavy pressure, sophomores Shabazz Napier (15 points) and Jeremy Lamb (10) struggled to find open shots. Lamb didn't score again after making the opening basket of the second half and took only three shots after intermission.
Lamb averaged 23.5 points in the first two Big East tournament games.
"They were just keying in on me a lot the whole game," Lamb said. "It was tough for us to make shots."
There were several encouraging signs.
For a good portion of the game, the Huskies successfully attacked the zone by working the middle but just missed good shots. A day after being beaten badly on the boards (47-31) in a win over West Virginia, they crashed in waves, posting a 46-34 edge.
Their effort remained consistent and they played disruptive defense, limiting the Orange to 38.5 percent from the field. Freshman Andre Drummond contributed 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
Eventually, mental fatigue set in.
"I felt we had a little bit (of mental fatigue) at the end," Calhoun said.
Let's face it: Syracuse is 31-1 for a reason. The Orange executed down the stretch. Junior James Southerland (10 points), who came in averaging 6.6 points, scored seven huge points in the final 4:55 including a 3-pointer that handed them a 51-47 lead.
The Huskies never caught up.
UConn's performance impressed Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.
"Connecticut is very, very good," Boeheim said. "When they had the lead, eight or nine points, they were in great position, and I thought our guys dug down on defense, played a little bit harder and got going on offense.
"It was a great comeback."
The loss ended a 13-game postseason winning streak, including seven straight in the Big East tournament. UConn also had won three straight, starting out with beating Pittsburgh in the regular season finale.
But the Huskies left New York in a better place.
"We found ourselves, that's what it boils down to you," Drummond said. "These past seven days we found out who we are as a team and what we need to do to keep moving forward throughout the rest of the season."
And they won over Calhoun, who expects the Huskies to be in the NCAA tournament field when it is announced Sunday.
"I love these guys and I love the way they care," Calhoun said.