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UConn men can't wait to return to Garden

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published March 25. 2014 4:00AM
Harry Scull Jr./AP Photo
UConn's Ryan Boatright (11) and Lasan Kromah celebrate the Huskies' 77-65 upset win over second-seeded Villanova on Saturday night in Buffalo. UConn, the No. 7 seed, faces No. 3 Iowa State on Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

They're heading home this week for the next stop on their NCAA tournament tour.

At least any trip to New York's Madison Square Garden sure feels that way for the UConn Huskies over the years.

The World's Most Famous Arena is where they've played more games and celebrated more success than any place outside of the state of Connecticut.

This is where they won the 1988 NIT championship, one of the most significant victories in school history that jump-started the program's long climb to an elite level. This is where they engaged in many memorable battles during their Big East days.

This is where they won an incredible five games in five days during a magical run in 2011 and won a record-tying seventh Big East tournament title. They went on to capture their third national championship a month later.

On Friday, UConn (28-8) will play at the Garden for the 112th time in the program's rich history, facing third-seeded Iowa State (28-7) in the East Regional semifinals (7:27 p.m., TBS).

"At UConn, we call the Garden our second home because, when we go to the Garden, we take care of business," said junior Ryan Boatright after beating Villanova on Saturday in Buffalo. "But it just feels good to go through to the Sweet 16. Going through what we went through last year, it was hurtful and painful to watch. We didn't have anything to do with the sanctions, but it just feels good, man, to move on."

A postseason ban prevented UConn from participating in the final Big East tournament last year before conference realignment. Now the Huskies are in the American Athletic Conference, which recently held its first conference tournament in Memphis.

The Huskies did make it back to the Garden earlier this season, beating Boston College and Indiana to win the 2K Sports Classic title in late November. It was their ninth championship in the building and upped their MSG record to 59-52, including 2-2 under coach Kevin Ollie.

Now they're determined to hold another net-cutting ceremony there. To accomplish that feat, they'll have to upset a lethal offensive team in Iowa State and either top-seeded Virginia or No. 4 Michigan State, two teams playing in the second game of the doubleheader.

Friday's games will be significant for another reason. It will be the first time Madison Square Garden has hosted the NCAA tournament since 1961.

The Huskies are expecting a pro-UConn crowd, although most tickets were sold long before they beat Saint Joseph's and Villanova to earn a trip to New York.

"Great chance just for us to have a type of home game," senior Niels Giffey said. "We're just excited to have our home crowd right around the corner, especially the older guys with so many great memories in the Garden. Like Ryan said, we're just trying to take care of business in the Garden."

Three players will enjoy a homecoming. Freshman Terrence Samuel and sophomore Omar Calhoun are from Brooklyn and freshman Kentan Facey attended Long Island Lutheran.

Other Huskies from the New York have achieved legendary status at the Garden, especially in March.

Ben Gordon put on an offensive show during the 2004 Big East tourney title run, earning most valuable player honors and the nickname, "Madison Square Gordon." Taliek Brown beat the shot clock with a 35-footer to help defeat Pittsburgh in double overtime for the 2002 championship.

Kemba Walker's legendary step-back, game-winning jumper knocked off Pittsburgh in the 2011 quarterfinals.

Senior Shabazz Napier, who lifted Walker off his feet during the postgame celebration that night, is playing the starring role this season.

When asked if this season is starting to have the same feel to it as 2011, Ollie said: "Kemba is a special player. I just want to keep riding Uncle Mo. That's the momentum. Wherever it takes us, it's going to take us.

"We've got to stay together as a team. We can't get drunk off success … We're going to write our own story. We're not going to let anybody write it for us."

g.keefe@theday.com

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