This rivalry needs saving


Not that there was time for reflection, not with the rattle and hum of 10,180 fans gasping at The Dunk Thursday night, but everyone who walked away from UConn 82, Providence 79 in overtime should have felt a twinge of disgust.

To think that there's a chance this classic, venomous rivalry might be over.

Conference realignment and all that.

What, you think that's presumptuous? Maybe. Maybe poohbahs from UConn and PC, when they're mulling future schedules in quieter offices, recall the howls and roars from the folks here Thursday and understand the necessity of continuing the series. But maybe not. And that would be sad. Because there is nothing better in sports - nothing - than watching the ongoing allegory between two teams and two fan bases that hate each other.

Make no mistake: UConn and Providence hate each other. That good sports hate. The stuff of rivalries and agony and ecstasy.

The UConn students showed up here Thursday, occupying an entire section, irritating the Friar Faithful with occasional "Let's Go Huskies" chants.

The Providence students responded with a sign that read "APR: Almost Passed Reading," some stinging commentary on UConn's past academic shortcomings.

And some Providence fans from Connecticut, not necessarily supporters of former New London great Kris Dunn, were plenty antsy before the game, one saying, "we just CAN'T lose to UConn."

How great is that?

"Just knowing people from Providence and the schools being so close together, it's a crosstown rivalry type of thing," UConn's Ryan Boatright was saying later. "It feels like there's more intensity and the crowd gets way more into it."

Don't let the UConn folks offer any kind of dismissive wave of Providence, either. They can point to all the banners and national championships. But that doesn't mean Providence is irrelevant. Proximity, history, whatever. UConn fans sure spend a lot of time telling each other how much they can't stand Providence, making fun of the Friars when they lose and reveling in how this season or promise has degenerated into a losing record into February.

It was a little less than a year ago that PC upset UConn late in the season. At the time, Jim Calhoun was experiencing health problems and NCAA sanctions had been levied. Meanwhile, PC had this energetic coach, Ed Cooley, and a promising recruiting class. Sure looked as though the programs were headed in different directions.

Hasn't worked that way. Kevin Ollie has done Big East Coach of the Year work. His team is 14-5 with immortals Tyler Olander and Enosch Wolf in the post. (Think about that). He won a game Thursday when his team surrendered a rather alarming 28 offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, Cooley has been left to deal with injuries and heaven knows what else, shuffling his starting lineup Thursday for a rivalry game that did not include senior Vincent Council, who finished with 15 points and 10 assists.

This season has been rooted in what Ollie said after the game: "Sometimes you gotta dig deep. We found something in our reserve tank. I always tell the guys to push to the second mile because there's not a lot of traffic on the second mile."

The atmosphere hasn't been like this enough this season. The XL Center was loud for the first half of the Louisville game. But no other game produced this. Dueling players, dueling fans. The crowd was unhinged for most of the second half, watching all the lead changes and the fouls. Fifty-five fouls. Five players fouled out. Now you know why Calhoun once called official Wally Rutecki, one of Thursday's perpetrators, "incompetent."

No one was going there after the game, sadly. Boatright said that the refs "read the papers, too."

The season marches on now. There is no postseason for the Huskies, meaning that nights like this will provide the best memories from this season of transition that has been such a season of delight. And for Providence, there are what-ifs and the fervent hope the future is better.

Cooley lauded Dunn's toughness after the game. He knows he has a team that's close. Ollie has a team that's closer. And they played a beauty Thursday night.

Please, important people. We need UConn-Providence next year, the year after and all the way to the year 2525. Hate is a good thing.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.


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