NEW YORK (AP)—The freight elevator opened and Syracuse players Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris wobbled in, physically and mentally exhausted, heading for a bus to the team hotel.
Also standing there, just after 2 a.m., was Connecticut star A.J. Price, in any other place and time one of their biggest rivals. Without saying a word, the three hugged.
For nearly four hours at Madison Square Garden, their teams had waged an up-and-down, back-and-forth, six-overtime marathon in the Big East tournament. No. 18 Syracuse finally outlasted the third-ranked Huskies 127-117 in a quarterfinal that started Thursday night and ended at 1:22 a.m. Friday—the second-longest game in Division I history.
“For a second I’m just thinking, ‘Lord, let’s just get this game over, go home. Whoever wins, wins the game,”’ Flynn said. “It was just getting near that time.”
Flynn might have been the only one who wanted it to end.
“It was an unbelievable game,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told The Associated Press, reflecting on it between team meetings Friday afternoon. “It was great to be a part of it.”
When the final buzzer sounded, eight players had fouled out. Seemingly just as many had gone to the bench with cramps, some of them leaning on trainers and teammates to make it there.
Hasheem Thabeet, the Huskies’ 7-foot-3 center from Tanzania and the league’s co-player of the year, wore a towel draped over his head. Flynn, who played 67 of the 70 possible minutes, smiled and hugged teammate Kris Joseph, while Syracuse guard Andy Rautins raised his arms and clapped.
Boeheim walked over and shook hands with UConn’s Jim Calhoun, both Hall of Fame coaches with almost 1,600 wins between them. It was the 12th time they’d played each other in the Big East tournament, and this was one for the ages.
“There was—there was certainly something about the game,” Calhoun said later, caught in a strange mixture of dejection and exhilaration, like a boxer who had just gone a full 12 rounds and couldn’t believe the decision went the other way.
“I’m sure in the summertime I’ll look back and say what a historic battle it was,” he added moments later. “Right now, it’s a loss. There’s no other way.”
Indeed, there must always be a winner and a loser, and the biggest winner might well have been West Virginia, the next opponent for the weary Orange in the semifinals on the same court about 20 hours later.
The Syracuse-Connecticut adventure finished one overtime short of the Division I record set in Cincinnati’s 75-73 victory over Bradley on Dec. 21, 1981.
The game almost ended in regulation time. Tied at 71 with 1.1 seconds to play, an inbounds pass was deflected to Syracuse’s Eric Devendorf, who let a shot go from about 28 feet just as the red lights around the backboard went off.
It went in, and Devendorf jumped up on the courtside press table, pounding his chest and screaming. The play was reviewed, as are all shots near the end of halves, and the officials finally ruled it came a fingertip too late, sending the game into the first of the six 5-minute overtimes.
The longest previous game in Big East tournament history was Syracuse’s 83-80 triple-overtime victory over Villanova in the 1981 title game, just the second one ever played, and in a strange coincidence, Rautins’ father, Leo, delivered the winning basket in that one.
He saw the game at home in Canada, where he’s a coach of the men’s national team and a TV analyst for the Toronto Raptors. As the game progressed, he watched intently as his son hit a 3-pointer with 11.7 seconds left to save Syracuse in the third overtime.
Fifteen minutes later, the fourth overtime ended. When the fifth extra period ended at 1:04 a.m., Rautins remembers seeing UConn freshman Kemba Walker on TV, lying on the floor in exhaustion while a teammate tried to drag him to his feet.
Syracuse never led after regulation until Rautins made a deep 3-pointer to start the sixth overtime, and the Orange finally managed to put the game away.
“I talked to him after the game. He was pretty happy, pretty tired,” Leo Rautins told the AP by phone Friday.
“I told him I’m proud of him, proud of the team. One of the things that impressed me was he was talking about getting ready for West Virginia. As a team, he said, ‘Everybody said it was great to be a part of, but we have another game tomorrow.”’
Syracuse didn’t return to the team hotel until about 2:45 a.m. The players went straight to their rooms, where managers delivered water and Gatorade.
Then came a few hours of precious sleep, followed by a team breakfast at 10 a.m., as usual—the same schedule as the previous two days. The rest of the schedule called for a team meeting, a pre-game meal and the game with the Mountaineers.
“We’ll be all right,” Boeheim said. “We’re a little tired, but we’ll bounce back and be ready.”
Flynn, Harris and Price weren’t the only ones who ran into each other after the game.
Boeheim and Calhoun shared a moment in a tunnel deep inside the Garden minutes after the game. Emotions were still raw. One coach was exhausted but overjoyed, the other just exhausted.
“Jimmy and I say the same things. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Next week is more important,”’ Calhoun recalled, referring to the NCAA tournament.
“Neither one of us means it.”
AP Basketball writer Jim O’Connell contributed to this story.