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Mike Lopresti | | March 12, 2016

UConn Huskies have March magic on their side

  It took four overtimes, but the Huskies advanced in the AAC Tournament on Friday.

So a player from Connecticut banks in a 60-foot shot to force a fourth overtime Friday, and the Huskies go on to win their American Athletic Conference tournament game with Cincinnati 104-97.

And this is surprising . . . why?

Shouldn’t be. Consider the source. Nobody – noooobody – has a March history with more wondrous moments lately than Connecticut. By now, it seems to come in the DNA.

From the No. 7 seed that stormed to the national championship in 2014, to the unsinkable bunch that won five Big East tournament games in five days in 2011, to the six-overtime epic showdown in the Big East tournament with Syracuse in 2009, to the frantic rush past Duke in the 2004 Final Four, to the great upset over Duke for the 1999 national championship. And now this. On and on it has gone.

"I think it’s a culture,’’ retired coach Jim Calhoun told over the phone Friday night. "There is no quit.’’

Friday’s drama certainly ranks up there, when poor Cincinnati was not even safe when it took a three-point lead with 0.8 seconds left in the third overtime. Jalen Adams and his Hail Mary saved the day – and quite possibly the season -- for UConn, which strengthened its case for an NCAA tournament bid with the victory. "That shot is going to be talked about a long time,’’ coach Kevin Ollie said.

But here’s the thing. It has a lot of company.

We can begin with the national championship game in 1999. Duke is 37-1, has won 32 in a row, and is by all accounts unstoppable. It is Mike Krzyzewski’s eighth Final Four team. It is Calhoun’s first. But the Huskies pull the upset, 77-74. Not Villanova over Georgetown, but pretty shocking.

Next, the national semifinals in 2004, and Duke again. The Blue Devils have an eight-point lead inside of four minutes left. In the bag, right? Duke doesn’t blow leads in the Final Four. Wrong. Connecticut reels off 11 points in a row. Two nights later, another national championship.

Forward to 2009, and the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. Connecticut and Syracuse tip off just after 9:30. They will not decide a winner until after 1 o’clock in the morning.

MORE: Michigan drills buzzer-beating 3 to upset Indiana

The Orange win 127-117, in a game that falls 14 minutes short of four hours. Eight players foul out, six get double-doubles. There are 102 points scored – after regulation. UConn loses this one, partly by missing 18 free throws, but later ends up in the Final Four.

"The players are probably exhausted, I’m not,’’ Calhoun says in the wee hours at Madison Square Garden. "I could practice right now. Foul shooting, probably.’’

Now it’s 2011, and Connecticut has nine losses going into the Big East tournament, the presumption being its only chance to get into the NCAA tournament is to win the Big East tournament. Yeah, when Huskies fly. That means five victories in five days, each one more physical than the last.

Impossible, which is why no one has ever done it.

But they do, with Kemba Walker in the lead. The last four are against ranked opponents – from Georgetown to Pittsburgh to Syracuse to Louisville. Walker is so spent in the final minutes against the Cardinals, he says later, "I just wanted to win this game so bad, my heart took over.’’

The Huskies get some sleep, then carry on. They roll through the NCAA tournament to the national championship, meaning they played -- and survived -- 11 elimination games in 28 days. It can stand as the most remarkable feat this century in college basketball.

"It is amazing,’’ long-time TV analyst Bill Raftery said Friday. "Every time you see a first round upset, the coaches will say to the kids, `UConn ran the table five times. We can.’ I think the connection still exists with that program.

I don’t know if people realize how good Kemba Walker was.’’

Now it’s 2014. Calhoun is retired, and off to TV analyst land. Connecticut is back in the NCAA tournament after a brief hiatus, but the Huskies are ranked only No. 18 and seeded No. 7. It has been more than two decades since a team ranked or seeded so low won the national championship.

Until now, with Shabazz Napier doing a reasonable rendition of Kemba Walker. "Somebody told me we were Cinderellas,’’ Ollie says that night. "And I was like, no, we’re UConn. I mean, this is what we do. We are born for this.’’

Now it’s 2016, and the Huskies are once again showing an extraordinary talent for survival, no matter what miracle it takes. "A lot of people questioned our heart throughout the season,’’ Ollie says after the game. "You can’t question it no more.’’

Maybe Friday pushes them to even more this month, maybe not. But it all seemed so . . . Connecticut-ish.

"Everybody has basic components and elements they think is special to their programs,’’ Calhoun said Friday. "When people asked me about success, I said the one thing we’re going to have, we’re going to be resilient. We just don’t give up on anything. Maybe because I’m too stubborn to ever give up on anything.

One of the things in life, like in basketball, you need to be resilient. There’s a sense of stubbornness. Not to be stubborn, not to adjust, but to have that resilience that you’re not going to quit on something you know is right. I think for us still to be competing like that, that’s very important.’’

So continues an astonishing trait. "It made Calhoun a TV star,’’ Raftery said.

And we haven’t even mentioned the UConn women yet.

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