By Neill Ostrout
STORRS — You can blame the officials for swallowing the whistles in the final seconds of Saturday night’s game, if you must.
But either way, the defending NCAA champion University of Connecticut basketball team is coming dangerously close to being forced to swallow its pride and accept a bid to the NIT.
The Huskies, despite clawing their way back from 17 down to tie second-ranked Syracuse in the final minute, suffered a 71-69 setback to the arch-rival Orange as a pair of calls didn’t go their way. Syracuse’s first-ever win in Gampel Pavilion delivered a serious blow to UConn’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
“I thought we worked hard. We fought and fought and fought,” said Jeremy Lamb, who led four Huskies in double figures with 19 points. “We had a great crowd behind us. We just couldn’t finish.”
A sellout crowd of 10,167, energized by the presence of ESPN’s College GameDay, tried to will the Huskies to their biggest win of the season and nearly accomplished that feat.
But Fab Melo’s tip dunk with 31 seconds to play — which looked at first glance to possibly by basket interference — put Syracuse ahead. And UConn forward Roscoe Smith’s game-tying effort with five seconds to play was swatted by Syracuse’s C.J. Fair — a play that very easily could have been called a foul.
“Syracuse kind of pushed their defense out and the middle was open,” said Smith, who caught a pass from Lamb near the free throw line. “I made a strong move and I got fouled.”