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Spring break, six overtimes and remembering Syracuse vs. UConn a decade ago

Where were you during the greatest college basketball game ever played?

Big East Tournament: Syracuse Orange v Connecticut Huskies Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images

Appropriately, in hindsight, I watched the Six Overtime Game from North Carolina (home of Syracuse’s future conference, the ACC).

As a junior at SU, I enjoyed spring break with a large group down at the Outer Banks. And while we were certainly glued to the TV for every Syracuse Orange game, there was a relaxing nature about it all that seems pretty nice looking back. When compared to how I watch any Syracuse sporting event today, anything would.

The easier vibe was in part informed by the circumstances: We were on spring break, got to hang out on the beach and drink every day; and in part by the company. Nearly everyone there was an SU student. But there were varying degrees of fandom. Some, like myself, my roommate Joey and others were at the high end. Plenty more were closer to being casual attendees of games with no problem displaying some school spirit.

All of this is necessary to set the stage for the evening of March 12, 2009, when that group — as varied on the fan spectrum as they may have been — shared in a basketball experience I know I’ll never forget.

Big East Tournament: Syracuse Orange v Connecticut Huskies Photo by: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

That Syracuse team was interesting, in that it was a veteran group that had fallen short of the NCAA Tournament for the two years prior and while the 2008-09 team was definitely tournament-bound, they weren’t necessarily seen as the potential title contenders the program would round into for most of 2009 through 2014. In short, they were Syracuse most years, save our “golden eras” here and there.

Their opponent on the night of March 12 was then a juggernaut: the UConn Huskies, ranked No. 3 in the nation and seemingly working toward another national championship chance. At the time, the Huskies were legitimate contenders atop the sport and their titles were earned, not tripped into as they were in 2011 and 2014. I say this in part out of jealousy and in part out of pure fact. But back then, UConn was a force to be reckoned with and this team was no different. Hasheem Thabeet, AJ Price and Stanley Robinson were a formidable group of scorers. Kemba Walker was on this team too, albeit in a far more limited role than what we saw the following two years.

In any case, we didn’t stand a great chance to beat them going in. We’d lost the first meeting that year by 14 (63-49) and looked terrible in the process and UConn had run roughshod over most of its schedule to that point. We didn’t “need” the win beyond a seeding boost and a potential shot at winning the Big East Tournament — which were important things at the time, and probably make you feel much worse about our current predicament of actually needing ACC Tournament wins to GET to the NCAAs. Alas, I digress...

In the first half of that game, Syracuse battled but trailed 37-34 after 20 minutes. It was a chance, at the very least. And one they took advantage of by trading punches with the Huskies for the next 20. Tied at 71, Eric Devendorf’s apparent miracle three seemed to give Syracuse the win at the buzzer... until it didn’t.

To pause, quickly, our group was already about six or seven beers in apiece by that point. Ends up stress-drinking around sports is a lot easier when you’re consuming light lagers (at the time, I wasn’t above Bud Light), and as a house, we’d run through a good portion of our beer supply for the week in regulation. When Devendorf’s shot went in, it was pandemonium. Several people jumped off the couch and onto the rest of us. It was fine. We were elated with what looked like a win in regulation.

When Devendorf’s shot was called back, that was when the levy broke (if it hadn’t already). The exclaimed “GODDAMMIT” was cue to break into the last of the beer: a 24-pack of Bud LIght in the basement.

For the smaller collection of us still going at the same speed, we averaged a beer an overtime for the rest of the game. I remember every second of the game, because a) Bud Light’s water and b) I feel like stress directly counters any sign of drunkenness. As those final seconds ticked away in overtime No. 6 and a 127-117 win for the ages, we’d tabbed a few to shotgun like the idiot college students we were.

This was all before Twitter was what it is today. I didn’t watch most games in that sports bar-type setting, constantly reloading and scrolling and looking for the best memes and highlights. Instead, the group sat and digested exactly what we’d just seen, and what it could mean for Syracuse’s Big East title and NCAA Tournament hopes, respectively. We re-lived every moment of that game for hours deep into that next morning. It felt like we were there, even though we were far away from Madison Square Garden that night. Admittedly, we WERE “there” in some way shape or form, inhabiting the same euphoric, exhausted space thousands of other Orange fans were too.

Big East Tournament: Syracuse Orange v Connecticut Huskies Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

That night is among my favorite from college, because despite it just being “another” Big East Tournament game on its face, it ended up being the turning point for my Orange fandom as a student, anyway. Two years of missing the Big Dance was followed by not just making it: but THIS game, in particular, being an exclamation point on Syracuse basketball being back, so to speak. It made the struggles worth it. Syracuse, for at least that night, was at the center of the sports world.

It’s easy to forget that SU wheezed by West Virginia in the next round, then lost a heartbreaker to Louisville in the Big East final. Despite that, though, the Six Overtime Game dashed the ghosts of my first two years on campus while also appearing to launch the Orange into the whirlwind run of five years that would the NCAA would attempt to rain on with an unnecessarily harsh set of punishments that included “vacated” wins. Still, the Six Overtime Game wasn’t the culmination. It was the start... little did we know then, anyway.

Based on how things are going right now, who knows if the Six Overtime Game inhabits the same historic space a decade from today. We don’t know what Syracuse or UConn basketball will look like (but we can guess UConn’s probably screwed if they don’t get out of the AAC). Syracuse, for what it’s worth, could be screwed too if the hire after Jim Boeheim doesn’t go as planned. Still, for SU fans, they’ll probably keep sharing stories like the one above no matter what happens next. I know I will.