Connecticut’s MSG home-court advantage is back

This was the price Big East foes knew they would be paying when UConn was invited back to where it belongs after its seven-year hiatus.

Husky fans streaming into the Garden, turning it into their house again, just as they did in the good old days when they celebrated Kemba Walker’s legendary step-back and five wins in five nights and Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin and Caron Butler and that desperation 40-footer at the end of double-overtime from Taliek Brown in the 2002 Big East Tournament championship game … and the seven title teams were a reflection of their tough, fiery, feisty Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun.

Even that epic six-overtime loss to Syracuse in 2011 lives large in the soul of the school and the state, a reminder of the kind of magic that can happen inside The World’s Most Famous Arena.

Because they had left in 2013 for the American Athletic Conference, because of COVID, this was the first chance for all of Husky Nation to turn the Garden into Gampel Pavilion South.

An old familiar chorus out of yesteryear of “Let’s Go Huskies! Let’s Go Huskies!” erupted early and often.

The pep band behind the basket roaring whenever the Huskies made sweet music on the floor.

Tyrese Martin waves to UConn fans during their 62-52 victory over Seton Hall.

Garden Party again after all these years.

UConn 62, Seton Hall 52.

“We used to call it home court,” Calhoun said, and laughed. He has been at the Garden all week as an analyst for the Big East Digital Network. “I don’t think people in New York realize just how big a deal for all our people to get on their trains and come down to Madison Square Garden.”

It was against this backdrop that Kevin Willard and Seton Hall needed to summon every ounce of their mental toughness to advance to Friday night’s semifinal against Villanova, the 66-65 comeback winner over St. John’s.

“We got the best fans in the world,” UConn’s R.J. Cole said. “The Garden’s a special place.”

The Hall, of course, was not without support, albeit much tamer, not without players who hadn’t experienced the Garden … not without an elite head coach.

“[Kevin Willard is] a really good coach,” Calhoun said. “He learned under [Rick] Pitino. … He learned under his father [Ralph Willard], who was a very good coach at Holy Cross. And he knows on his team where to put this one and that one, and how many times they should shoot. He gets it. Not everybody gets it. I like his toughness. He created a good, tough team. He’s a really good coach.”

Usually, where there’s a Willard, there’s a way.

Connecticut fans including Andrea Walker, right, mother to Kemba Walker, cheer during UConn's win over Seton Hall.
Connecticut fans including Andrea Walker, right, mother to Kemba Walker, cheer during UConn’s win over Seton Hall.
Robert Sabo

Not on this night.

“It was just electric,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said.

He had been worried about how his players might handle their first real live Big East Tournament with a full house. “That’s why you come to a place like UConn to play. The big dogs play in the quarters and semis. The place was rocking.”

Wait until Villanova.

“Tomorrow’s gonna be insanity in here,” Hurley said.

The Hall labored mightily from the start in the face of a physical, defiant defense, often unable to get a shot off until 10 seconds or less remained on the shot clock. The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (7-for-28) was lucky to be down only 29-18 at intermission. Myles Cale (17 points) tried to carry the Hall, but was by his lonesome.

R.J. Cole (left) and Isaiah Whaley celebrate during UConn's win.
R.J. Cole (left) and Isaiah Whaley celebrate during UConn’s win.

UConn was the hungrier team, possessed with the mindset that every loose ball was theirs. “I think we’re a little tired,” Willard said.

Jared Rhoden (seven points), hounded often by a tenacious Tyrese Martin (17 points, eight rebounds) shot 2-for-13 and was on the bench when Cole (17 points) drilled a dagger 3 that made it UConn 58, Hall 44.

“I thought [Cole] wasn’t gonna be good enough as a point guard, but he’s made himself into a really good basketball player,” Calhoun said.

Hurley has built a program in his own image.

“Coach Hurley can really recruit,” Calhoun said. “He makes me look sane. I think we’re different kind of personalities. I do think that we do share something — we drink an adrenaline shot every morning just to get a little bit going (laugh).”

When it was suggested that Hurley might drink an adrenaline shot a little more than he did, Calhoun laughed and said: “He’s drinking by the gallon.”

His entire team apparently joined him. So did Husky Nation.

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