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Five years ago today, Syracuse fans saw drama for ages

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Every once in awhile you still see a Syracuse basketball fan wearing that memorable T-shirt either in the Carrier Dome or at an NCAA Tournament venue.

226 minutes, 6 overtimes, 2 days, 1 game for the ages.

It is a remembrance of one of the most memorable games in Orange history, one that captivated the nation on a cold Thursday night in New York City exactly five years ago today.

For those who don’t remember, or for those like me who were there and still can’t fathom what happened, SU needed six overtimes to outlast arch-rival Connecticut 127-117 in a Big East Conference Tournament quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden.

It was 70 minutes of riveting, up-and-down action between two storied programs and a bunch of gritty players who played at an extraordinarily high level for the entire game.

As a journalist trying to make deadline (it was 12:30 p.m. for our first edition, which I missed by almost an hour after the game ended at 1:24 a.m. on Friday morning), those 226 minutes were some of the longest, and at the same time most exciting, of my career.

The game did not start until 9:38 because it was the second game of a doubleheader and the first game went a little over two hours. But because there were so many twists and turns, so many moments when it looked like one team or another would win, I was forced to change the lead to my story six or seven times until the Orange finally prevailed.

By that time, I was exhausted, as were the 19,375 MSG patrons, most of whom stayed for the entire marathon. Among them were SU fans watching around the country and my faithful wife, who was sitting in our hotel room wondering if I’d ever get back that night.

While preparing to write this story, I needed to go back to my original story and the follow-up story I wrote the next day to jog my memory as to what actually happened during the game.

Here are just a few of the highlights:

Syracuse was the No. 6 seed in the tournament, coming off an 11-7 regular season. The Orange beat No. 11 Seton Hall 89-74 in the second round to set up a meeting with No. 3 Connecticut in the quarterfinals.

The Huskies had beaten SU at home, 63-49, in their only meeting of the season a month before the six-overtime game.

Trailing 37-34 at halftime, the Orange fell behind by six points in the opening minute of the second half and appeared in trouble.

SU went through a six-minute scoring drought, but its defense held strong and the Orange trailed 46-40 when coach Jim Boeheim called a timeout at the 13-minute mark.

Syracuse finally tied the game at 51-51 with 8:24 left, and then raced to a 64-57 lead at the under four-minute TV timeout. But the Huskies scored seven straight points, tying the game with 2:24 remaining.

SU was still ahead 71-69 when UConn’s Kemba Walker followed a missed shot and tied the game with 1.1 seconds left in regulation. Most people figured the Orange could not get off a potential winning shot, including me. But Orange senior guard Eric Devendorf had other ideas.

Paul Harris threw a long inbounds pass that Kristof Ongenaet tipped to Devendorf near the sideline. He spun and heaved up a 22-footer over 6-foot-9 Gavin Edwards that swished through the net just as the final buzzer went off.

Sitting two rows behind the court, and directly in line with Devendorf’s shot, I remember thinking it looked good all the way. But whether it beat the clock, I don’t think anybody in attendance was really sure.

I could see ESPN’s TV monitor from my seat, and watched the replay five or six times. It was pretty apparent that the scoreboard had lit up, signaling the end of the game, just a fraction of a second before the ball left Devendorf’s hands.

Devendorf had jumped up on the press table in front of me and started to celebrate what would have been one of the greatest shots in SU history. But when head official John Cahill signaled no good, you could feel the air come out of the “World’s Most Famous Arena’’ for just a few seconds.

By the time the first overtime started, those who had already watched a masterpiece settled in for what they thought would be a quick extra session.

Yeah, right. The Orange fell behind in each of the first five overtimes, only to battle back again and again.

SU spotted UConn the first four points in the first overtime, then tied it on a Rick Jackson jam with 4.1 seconds left.

Two Devendorf free throws tied the game late in the second overtime, and Jonny Flynn’s long 3-point attempt in the final seconds went awry, forcing a third overtime.

An Andy Rautins 3-pointer with 11 seconds left tied the game at 98-all in the third overtime, and the Orange survived two missed UConn shots in the final seconds.

Paul Harris, who scored a career high 29 points and grabbed 22 rebounds in a Herculean effort for SU, had two chances to win it at the end of the fourth overtime. It looked like he was fouled on an offensive put-back, but the officials waived it off in the final seconds.

Flynn, who played 67 minutes, scored 34 points and went 16-for-16 at the foul line, then hit two free throws to send the game into a sixth overtime.

Rautins finally put SU on top for good by draining a 3-pointer to begin the sixth overtime. Harris scored 11 points in that final five-minute session to send the large Orange contingent home happy, but completely drained.

Said Flynn afterward: “You try not to think about being tired. Mentally, you try to stay focused on what you have to do and just play basketball. But I admit I can’t really feel my legs right now.”

People also forget that three starters (Devendorf, Jackson, Onuaku) and a valuable reserve (Ongenaet) all fouled out in overtime. And that little-used freshman forward Kris Joseph was forced to play center for much of the overtimes. Or that senior walk-on Justin Thomas also played seven critical minutes, picking up a key rebound (the first of his career) in the final overtime.

Asked about that game recently, longtime SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins said, “I can remember it like it was yesterday. So many big plays. So many heroic performances. So much toughness and character shown by both teams. It’s a game that will probably never be matched for drama as long as we live.”

For those of us who lived through it, we couldn’t agree more.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times.

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