HARTFORD, Conn. -- Kevin Ollie was determined to coach this season as if Connecticut had a chance for glory, never giving the postseason ban a second thought when he was given a seven-month contract to replace Jim Calhoun or when he received a multiyear deal in late December.
The only way Ollie knew how to coach the lame-duck Huskies was to ensure the team played as if the national title were still in sight.
The players never blinked. The ones who stayed remained committed and were determined not to play spoiler but to win the Big East regular-season title.
Now they still can.
And if the Huskies’ 66-58 victory over No. 6 Syracuse on Wednesday at the XL Center -- in the final matchup between these charter Big East members before the Orange go to the ACC -- is any indication, UConn isn’t going to be just a spoiler.
The Huskies have larger aspirations. They want to win the title and stick it to the conference that wouldn’t let them play in the league tournament after the NCAA ruled their academic progress rate was too low and banned them from the postseason.
Is it a reach? Possibly. But it’s not out of the question for the Huskies, who have a game to go against Georgetown, two with Cincinnati and none remaining against Syracuse or Louisville.
The win put UConn at 7-4 in the Big East, just a game back of the first-place trio of Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette.
What would it mean to the Huskies to pull off the improbable feat?
“It would mean everything, considering that they tried to take everything from us," said sophomore Ryan Boatright, who led the Huskies with 17 points Wednesday. “It’s realistic because anybody can lose in the Big East. We feel like we’re supposed to be here."
Regardless of Boatright’s confidence, the win is still one of the more surprising of the season. UConn was dealt another blow to its depth when Enosch Wolf, who had been a stable inside presence, was suspended indefinitely; he likely has played his last game. Wolf saw his domestic dispute case continued to March 20 after a Hartford court appearance earlier Wednesday. He was charged with third-degree burglary, criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.
And it didn’t matter one bit against Syracuse’s length in the zone or on the boards. Boatright, Shabazz Napier and Omar Calhoun handily won the perimeter battle with Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche.
Earlier in the day, Huskies assistant coach Karl Hobbs said UConn had to make seven 3s to beat Syracuse. The Huskies made eight, seven of those coming from the aforementioned trio, with one from Niels Giffey.
The Orange were just 4-of-23 from long range.
“They shot 8-of-14 from the 3, which is the best anybody’s shot against us in a long time," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Their guards played extremely well, but I thought all their guys played well."
Boatright didn’t hold back with his postgame comments, saying the Huskies had sent Syracuse to the ACC “with a taste of UConn in their mouth.” The same comment was uttered by Omar Calhoun after the game.
“It was definitely a big game," Calhoun said. “I know the tradition and the rivalry between these two teams. They got to leave with a taste of UConn in their mouth going to the ACC."
It’s no secret the Huskies wanted to go to the ACC, which instead picked Louisville over them and Cincinnati. UConn is left with the Bearcats in the remaining Big East as Syracuse and Pitt head to the ACC next season.
Jim Calhoun, the Hall of Fame coach, was courtside for the game and said during the second half that he didn’t want this rivalry to end.
Boeheim said after the game about the UConn series, “It’s been a great series. Connecticut and Syracuse have had so many great games over the years. The league wasn’t able to be kept together. I feel bad about the whole thing."
Syracuse has already signed up for a home-and-home series with St. John’s. The other one that makes the most sense is with Georgetown since the Hoyas are in a recruiting area that is crucial to the Orange. And that series with the Hoyas might take on more importance now that Maryland is heading to the Big Ten.
Jim Calhoun said Georgetown was always Syracuse’s biggest rival but the Orange were the top rivalry for the Huskies. Boeheim said after the game that he would be open to playing anybody.
“Your biggest rivalries are going to be the teams in your league," he said. “That’s just the way it is. Even if you play somebody, it will never be the same. It will never be the same."
To Ollie, this was bittersweet, since he said one of the reasons he went to UConn was to play in the Big East against schools such as Syracuse.
“It’s kind of hard with the rivalry being over with," he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to play somewhere, somehow."
If the Huskies can play with the same passion and purpose, flaws and all, the rest of the season as they did Wednesday, anything is possible in this league.
The role of spoiler fits Boatright.
“It feels great because they came in with their swag, their attitude, and they thought they were going to blow us out of the gym," he 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."
And the credit goes to Ollie, who should be the front-runner for Big East coach of the year.
“We’re just one of the purest teams playing right now," Ollie said. “We’re not playing for the postseason. We’re playing for the love of UConn. We’re playing for the love of each other. We’re playing for the pride of getting better. They can’t ban us from that. They can ban us from the postseason, they can ban us from the Big East tournament, but they can’t ban us from getting better and loving each other. They really love being around each other, and it shows."