Published February 14. 2013 4:00AM
In a season filled with pleasant surprises, this is the biggest yet.
UConn shocked No. 6 Syracuse, 66-58, Wednesday at the XL Center in Hartford.
That’s Big East leader Syracuse.
It was the Huskies’ best all-around game.
They played tenacious defense, limiting Syracuse to a season-low 35.4 percent. They ran an efficient zone offense, shooting 46.7 percent. They won the rebounding battle, 38-36. They made their free throws, going 16-for-22.
They received valuable contributions from every player.
“It was a great game by our guys,” coach Kevin Ollie said. “We played with energy, effort and focus.”
UConn improved to 17-6 overall, 7-4 in the Big East.
The Huskies clearly took extra satisfaction in beating the Orange(20-4, 8-3).
“It means a lot that we won, but it means more to be able to beat Syracuse” junior Niels Giffey said.
Check out the attached video of Ollie's post-game remarks.
Some news, notes and quotes:
-- The game marked the end of the Big East rivalry between UConn and Syracuse, which heads to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
“It’s kind of hard with the rivalry being over with,” Ollie said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to play somewhere, somehow.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is open to continuing the series, but it won’t be the same.
“We’re open to playing anybody…,” Boeheim said. “Your biggest rivalries are going to be the teams in your league. That’s just the way it is. … Even if you play somebody, it will never be the same.”
-- UConn needs only one win to equal last year’s Big East total. The Huskies have seven games remaining – four at home, three on the road.
-- Ollie raved about his team’s defense, and for good reason. The Huskies never let the Orange go on a big run.
“We hold a team with so much talent to 35 percent, it really shows the hard work and dedication they put in,” Ollie said.
-- One big difference was 3-point shooting.
UConn went 8-for-14, including making 6-of-8 in the second half. Syracuse was just 4-for-23. And James Southerland made all four while his teammates went 0-for-14.
Fearless freshman Omar Calhoun had three big 3-pointers, including the go-ahead basket, for UConn in the second half to help hold off the Orange.
Calhoun set up in the corner, waiting for passes from his penetrating guards. He had 11 of his 15 points after intermission.
“They’re a long team and you have to be able to get your shot off quick against them,” Calhoun said.
-- Boeheim joined the growing list of college coaches impressed with Ollie.
“I think Kevin’s done an unbelievable job…,” Boeheim said. “You can see that based on all the games they’ve played. They’re in every game. They’ve won big games. They’ve played hard, played together, all year.”
-- During the post-game celebration, the Huskies went over to the family section across from the UConn bench.
Sophomore Ryan Boatright received a warm hug from his mother, Tanesha.
“It really hit her deep,” Boatright said of the big win. “She was there the three times we lost to them last year. She was really excited.”
-- Boatright, who had a game-high 17 points, was asked if it feels good to play the role of spoiler this season.
“It feels great because they came in with their swag, their attitude, and they thought they were gong to blow us out of the gym,” Boatright said. “We hit them first. In the second half, they thought they were going to make a run and we responded. It was a team effort. It was a great win.”
-- With reserve center Enosch Wolf serving an indefinite suspension and starter Tyler Olander batting foul trouble, Ollie called on freshman forward Phil Nolan, who had yet to score in Big East action this season.
He didn’t break the scoring drought, but did rebound well, grabbing a career-high five, and played solid defense. He played 13 minutes off the bench.
“I work hard in practice no matter what happens but I felt pretty sure that my chance was going to come, and it came tonight,” Nolan said.
Prior to Wednesday’s game, Nolan had just one rebound in limited action in six Big East games.
“He did what he had to do, plus more,” junior Shabazz Napier said. “We commend him for that.”
-- Napier set up two impressive alley-oop plays.
First, he fed Giffey, who likely stunned the Orange with his finish. It was Giffey’s first alley-oop dunk of his career.
“Coach (George) Blaney always tells me don’t throw an alley-oop to a white guy,” Napier said. “A lot of people don’t know, but I think Niels, by far, has the best athleticism on the team.”
Then Napier made a no-look pass to set up Boatright, who was hiding along the baseline before rising for his dunk.
“Any chance I can get to make a play like that I love it,” Boatright said.
-- Ollie on his team’s success against a traditionally tough zone: “We just moved the basketball. We were hitting shots. Our defense really gave us the opportunity to get out on the break a little bit.”
-- The game wasn’t a sell-out, but the 13,518 fans in attendance made a lot of noise. Ollie and several Huskies made a point to express their gratitude.
"The crowd definitely helped us today,” Napier said.
-- UConn improved to 3-2 against top 25 teams. The Huskies have only one more ranked team on their schedule, playing No. 15 Georgetown on Feb. 27.
-- The Huskies overcame a season-high 18 turnovers.
-- Syracuse had 20 offensive rebounds, but cashed those in for only 16 second chance points.
-- Up next: UConn hosts Villanova Saturday at noon inHartford.