HARTFORD -- One by one, they crowded around their head coach, who was in the middle of his post-game victory interview on ESPN. Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, Omar Calhoun and the rest, all of them bobbing up and down behind Kevin Ollie, trying to get a little bit of face time, when in fact, the players -- yes, even Phil Nolan -- had just spent the past two hours showcasing themselves in prime time.

Interview over, Ollie headed to the locker room, not before getting a congratulatory hug from his former boss, Jim Calhoun. His players, however, weren't ready to leave the floor, so they made their way to the student section, high-fiving their way around before leaving to another standing ovation.

It's not often that a UConn team celebrates a regular-season win like this, but when the opponent is Syracuse, when the opponent is ranked No. 6 in the country, and when everyone -- except Ollie and his band of brothers -- doesn't think you have a chance, you lace up your sneakers and you go out to prove the world wrong.

And that's what UConn did.

They took every Syracuse punch, withstood every Syracuse run, and when it was time, it was UConn that made the big shot, it was UConn that grabbed the key rebound, it was UConn that played the kind of defense that always defined Calhoun-coached teams.

And it was UConn that won.

"It was a great game. We played hard, we played with effort and focus," Ollie said. "Every guy that played on our roster came in and contributed."

Go down the line. There's Boatright, sneaking behind an unsuspecting Syracuse defender, taking a lob from his backcourt mate, Napier, and dunking to send the 13,518 at the XL Center into a frenzy, just two of his game-high 17 points. There was Omar Calhoun, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half to push the Husky lead out to nine. He finished with 15 points. There was Napier, only taking six shots but handing out seven assists and playing some hard-nosed, in-your-face defense against Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams, holding him to just one assist.

There was blue-collar Giffey, scoring nine, grabbing five rebounds and giving Ollie 25 tough, tough minutes. And there was Nolan, who hadn't even played in four of UConn's Big East games and was averaging six minutes in the ones that he did, playing 14 minutes and contributing five rebounds.

"Phil Nolan, being put in a tough position in a big game like this, ESPN game, to give us five rebounds was big-time," Ollie said. "R.J. (Evans) ¦ Niels ¦ all our bench guys. And our guards, it starts and ends with our guards. They played tremendous defense. It really shows all the hard work and the dedication."

Before the game, Ollie put a quote on the backboard in the locker room. It was about overcoming obstacles and finding the opportunities behind them. Ever the motivator, Ollie has spent this season working every angle, pressing every button, making his players not only into a unit but making them a family.

"Kevin's done an unbelievable job, a tremendous job," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who had been battling Calhoun and Connecticut since 1986. "You can see that in the games they've played. They're in every game. They've won big games and they've played hard and together all year."

The togetherness was never more evident than in the second half. After Boatright canned a 3-pointer with a second left, UConn took a 29-24 lead into halftime. But Syracuse came back and when James Southerland hit a 3 with 11:46 to go, the Orange took a 40-39 lead.

It would be their last.

Giffey hit a 3, and then, over the next four minutes, Calhoun made three 3-pointers that put the Huskies in control.

"Guys were working hard and being tough on the court," Napier said. "Everyone, even Phillip. He came in and did what he had to do, plus more. It was great. We played well together."

And Boatright, with just 27.7 seconds left, who said he was "smelling victory," urged the XL Center crowd to get up and roar, flapping his arms like a bird in flight.

And the XL Center did just that.

"It feels great," Boatright said. "(Syracuse) came out with their swagger and attitude and thinking they were going to blow us out of the gym. We hit them first and in the second half they came out and made a run, and we came back and responded. It was a great team win."

Emphasis on team.

"We're just playing basketball. We're not playing for the postseason, we're playing for the love of UConn," Ollie said. "We're playing for the pride of getting better. They can ban us from the postseason, they can ban us from the Big East, but they can't ban us from playing hard and loving each other.

"We have heart and you can't measure that. They went out determined to show America that we are a good team, no matter what. And they found a way, just like they've been doing all season."

celsberry@ctpost.com; http://Twitter@elsctpost