Madison Square Garden hosts another UConn-Syracuse showdown
New Yorker Mamadou Diarra was so excited about being in Madison Square Garden last year that the UConn forward started shaking.
An injured Diarra, who's from nearby Queens, could only watch from the bench while UConn knocked off Syracuse in dramatic fashion.
Imagine what Diarra's emotions will be like on Tuesday when he plays there for the first time.
UConn (6-2) and Syracuse (6-1), two former Big East rivals, meet in the Jimmy V Classic (approximately 9:30 p.m., ESPN). Fourth-ranked Villanova and No. 12 Gonzaga play in the opening game at 7.
"I remember being there last year, just sitting there," Diarra said. "I wasn't able to play, of course, but it was a great atmosphere and I just couldn't wait for this year. ... I was shaking already and I wasn't even playing. So it's definitely a dream come true."
Three other active members of the UConn roster also have strong ties to the area. Redshirt junior Terry Larrier is from the Bronx and sophomore Christian Vital calls Queens Village his home, while Antwoine Anderson attended Fordham before graduating and transferring to UConn.
Vital's face lights up when talking about his game-winning free throws with 2.2 seconds left that secured a 52-50 win over Syracuse last December. Those were his only points of the game.
"That was a pretty special moment," Vital said. "I just remember the whole Garden just screaming. It seemed like UConn Nation really took over that arena. To celebrate that with my friends, my family and my teammates, that was just a really good moment."
Coach Kevin Ollie recognizes the game holds special meaning to his players as well as Husky fans who've watched their team celebrate Big East tournament championship and NIT title wins, as well as NCAA tournament victories.
Playing Syracuse adds extra spice.
"I know it does mean a lot, especially in the Garden," Ollie said. "You grow up in New York, any borough you grow up in, you want to play there ... It's a lot of dreams that those kids have over years and years and years. Parents telling them stories about them in the Garden watching games and all the greats that have played there.
"It's just a great opportunity for our guys. We've got a lot of young guys that never had the opportunity to play in there. It's going to be fun."
Of course, how much fun the experience will be depends on the game's outcome.
UConn is in search of a resume-building win. The Huskies had three chances at the PK80 Invitational last month, but came away with just one win against Oregon while losing to Michigan State and Arkansas.
Since then, they've posted consecutive overtime wins over mid-major competition, including beating Monmouth, 84-81, on Saturday. But they've been prone to prolonged offensive droughts and defensive breakdowns.
"It's frustrating sometimes as a coach, but it's also a journey, too," Ollie said. "I can't get frustrated, and I'm not going to get frustrated. I want these guys to get it right away and they're not. That's just part of coaching. I've still got to figure out ways to really get to them.
"But they're finding different ways to win. They could have given up (against Monmouth), but they didn't. It was a testament to them."
Tuesday would be a great time for the Huskies to play their best game.
Syracuse opened the season with six straight wins at home before losing to No. 2 Kansas 76-60 in Miami on Saturday.
Figuring out a way to solve the Orange's paralyzing 2-3 zone is never easy. They're limiting foes to just 37.6 percent from the field and 62 points per game.
"That's their staple," Larrier said. "They're really good at. Their guards are long and athletic. We've just got to move the ball around, get good shots and try to run in transition and beat them down the floor."
The Huskies can't rely on their 3-point shooting to carry them. Only Larrier (41.7 percent) converts better than 34 percent from beyond the arc.
Yet they had a terrible shooting night in last year's meeting, sinking 31.4 percent from the field overall, but still overcame an 11-point deficit in the second half.
Syracuse isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut either. The backcourt of Tyus Battle (20 pts) and Frank Howard (15.6) as well as freshman forward Oshae Brissett (12.3) are the only reliable scorers. The recent departure of graduate transfer Geno Thorpe has hurt the Orange's depth. They've survived at times by dominating the boards, out-rebounding foes by an average of 12.5 per game.
UCONN vs. SYRACUSE
Location: Madison Square Garden, NYC
Tipoff: approximately 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Records: UConn 6-2, Syracuse 6-1
Last game: UConn beat Monmouth, 84-81 (OT), Saturday; Syracuse lost to No. 2 Kansas, 76-60, Saturday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-2 grad. guard Antwoine Anderson (10.3 pts), 6-3 jr. guard Jalen Adams (19.4 pts, 4.3 rebs, 3.3 assists), 6-2 so. guard Christian Vital (12.3 pts, 4.4 rebs), 6-8 redshirt jr. forward Terry Larrier (16 pts, 6.8 rebs), 6-9 grad. forward David Onuorah (0.3 pts, 3.1 rebs)
Syracuse, 6-6 so. guard Tyus Battle (20 pts), 6-5 jr. guard Frank Howard (15.6 pts, 6.1 assists), 6-8 so. forward Matthew Moyer (2.4 pts, 4 rebs), 6-8 fr. forward Oshae Brissett (12.3 pts, 9.7 rebs), 7-2 jr. center Paschal Chukwu (5.7 pts, 5.9 rebs)
Noteworthy: Jimmy V Classic showdown between ex-Big East rivals. Third appearance in event for Huskies, who lost to both NC State (69-65) in 2012 and Maryland (76-66) in 2015. ... Series: UConn trails, 55-38, winning last meeting, 52-50, last December at MSG. Vital's free throws with 2.2 seconds left the difference. Adams had 16 pts. ... Top reserve: 6-10 fr. forward Bourama Sidibe (5.1 pts, 4.6 rebs). ... Brissett with 3 double-doubles. ... Orange shooting just 43.3 percent from field, but zone limiting teams to 37.6 percent. ... Hot: Adams averaging 22.2 pts in last four games. Cold: Larrier 8-for-25 from field last two games. ... Odd stat: UConn allowed one more point (584) than it has scored (583) this season. ... 116th game at MSG for UConn, which is 62-53 there. ... Magic number: Huskies 6-0 when scoring at least 70 pts. ... Injury update: Alterique Gilbert (shoulder) out. ... Up next: UConn hosts Coppin State Saturday in Storrs.
— Gavin Keefe
UConn guard Christian Vital on the rivalry with Syracuse, his memories of last year’s win and going home to play at MSG. Also, he talks about Kemba Walker and Taliek Brown pic.twitter.com/NwAOK4IOeO— Gavin Keefe (@GavinKeefe) December 4, 2017
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