STORRS - It was turn-back-the-clock night at Gampel Pavilion Wednesday night, and it had little to do with the throwback uniforms the UConn men’s basketball team wore for its game against Seton Hall.
The building was packed to the rafters, was as loud as it has been in years, and the Huskies came out victorious in an old-fashioned Big East war.
If you blinked, it could have been 1996 or 2006.
The UConn students, none of whom were alive during the glory days of the former, waited in droves outside of the building Wednesday afternoon and evening, then sprinted to their seats when allowed in some 90 minutes before tipoff.
UConn coach Dan Hurley, who is most definitely an old-school coach, embraced the atmosphere immediately.
“I gave them a couple Ric Flair ‘Woos’ before the game to get them extra-amped up,” Hurley said, referring to the excitable former wrestler.
The Woos did the trick.
Behind a fired-up flock of fans, No. 24 UConn held off Seton Hall 70-65.
The Huskies exacted a bit of revenge for an overtime loss to the Pirates earlier this season. They also beat Hurley’s alma mater, and the coach, Kevin Willard, who famously said two years ago he wasn’t happy that UConn had returned to the Big East.
Willard said later that he was kidding. He apparently was a wrestling fan in his youth, too, and perhaps wanted to stage a mock feud with Hurley to entertain the onlookers.
If that was the case before, Willard is no longer playing along. He didn’t crack any jokes or smile when asked about the budding rivalry between his program and the Huskies’.
“I’ve got not nothing but respect for Danny and the way his teams play and the way he coaches,” Willard said.
Willard also has a lot of respect for the way the Huskies rebound the ball. UConn won the board battle 41-31 Wednesday, with Adama Sanogo pulling down 16 and Tyrese Martin 10 for the Huskies.
“They destroyed us on the glass,” Willard said. “When you’re on the road and you’re playing in a great atmosphere, you can’t give as many second shots as we gave them.”
The atmosphere may have rattled the visiting Pirates just slightly, who threw a few passes into the stands when facing physical pressure from the UConn players and verbal pressure from the student section hovering over the west end of the court.
Hurley, as he often does after games, heaped heavy praise on the students in the crowd for spurring his team on.
“They’ve been unbelievable since I’ve been here,” Hurley said.
The coach is correct that the fans have been more boisterous and plentiful this season, though that’s due in large part to the product Hurley and company are putting on the court these days.
UConn isn’t quite a national championship contender, but it’s eons closer than it was when Hurley arrived and the atmosphere for games in Storrs is starting to resemble the rabid experience it was for long stretches under Jim Calhoun.
And the players on the court are adopting a philosophy that Calhoun would approve of: rebound first, ask questions later.
“When we take a defense-first mentality and try to eat glass, just try to crush the glass, we’re incredibly hard to beat,” Hurley said.
On Wednesday, the Huskies were far from perfect. But they were tough. It’s slowly becoming their calling card.
“We’re tough. We’ve got culture here. We’ve got tough players and tough-minded people,” Hurley said. “You can’t do basketball at UConn unless you’re really tough.”
And you can’t do basketball fandom at UConn unless you appreciate a few Woos from the head coach.