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UConn fans out in full force in response to wakeup call from ESPN’s GameDay crew

STORRS – UConn great Rip Hamilton received a smattering of applause as he made his way to center court at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday morning, where he met Jay Williams and ESPN’s College GameDay crew.

Williams asked Hamilton, whose No. 32 hung behind a curtain in the rafters next to Ray Allen’s, set to be revealed and retired at halftime of Saturday night’s game against Villanova, to attempt a shot from half court.

“You know what’s crazy, Jay, I ain’t got my UConn jersey on but it’s okay, I’ve made a lot of buckets here,” Hamilton said. “So hopefully I can make one in front of the greatest fans in the world. And I can’t let a Duke guy show me up in my hometown.”

“Just hit the rim, Rip, make sure you hit the rim,” Williams responded.

Hamilton started from behind the half court line, took two steps and heaved. He didn’t need the rim or the backboard. The crowd, mostly exuberant students who filled the lower bowl, went nuts as Hamilton’s shot – his first and only attempt – fell straight through the net.

The UConn students, in anticipation of GameDay’s fourth trip to Storrs and its first since 2014, embraced the show’s natural madness. Several camped outside the on-campus arena for 24 hours-plus – dozens slept in tents overnight – and raced to get the best spot behind ESPN’s set for the chance to be featured with their signs on the nationally televised broadcast.

They cheered everything positive about UConn and booed just about anything else, staying quiet only to hear praise and to take in ESPN’s featured segments. The students listened on as Hamilton named his top five Huskies all-time with legendary coach Jim Calhoun by his side (he chose Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker and himself). ESPN also showed a feature dissecting head coach Dan Hurley’s intense style and an interview with Alex Karaban at UConn’s Dairy Bar, where he compared his teammates to ice cream flavors.

The signs that filled the crowd hit on a wide range of topics, from “Adopt me, Dan” to “KaraBANG,” “King of the Castle,” others that targeted Saturday’s opponent, Villanova, and several that suggested Hurley run for president.

Hurley walked out to the set through a tunnel of cheerleaders and his eye caught one sign in particular. “Hurley boys do it best,” it read, featuring photos of him and his son, Andrew, a senior walk-on with the Huskies.

“This guy right here,” Hurley said, pointing at the picture of Andrew, who watched from the bleachers across the court next to Donovan Clingan. “I’ve got my son Danny who lives back in New Jersey and deals with me on a macro level and then I’ve got Andrew. … Senior night is gonna be tough for me, an emotional night, because it’s meant so much to me to spend this four years with him. He’s been such an integral part of the locker room and the team, and I’m not gonna cry right now because I can’t let Villanova see me look soft.”

The crowd went wild again.

Hurley took to the half court logo in an attempt to recreate Hamilton’s moment, but had no such luck. The coach, who sought out to hit two in a row during ESPN’s prerecorded feature, chucked 10 shots toward the basket, six of which hit hard off the backboard and the other four hit nothing.

He rebounded his last attempt and punted the ball into the crowd.

There was one last half court shot made, perhaps the one with the most on the line. UConn mechanical engineering student Akshay Zaveri, from Bethel, was selected for GameDay’s traditional half court contest for a chance at $19,000. His shot went through the net with one second to spare.

ESPN’s personalities had nothing but glowing remarks for the top-ranked, reigning national champions, when they spoke with Connecticut media on Friday, continuing the theme into Saturday’s show.

“They’ve got a great group of players, high character, fiercely competitive, tough and extremely coachable that buy into one thing and one thing only: Winning,” analyst Seth Greenberg said. “The big thing about this team that makes it a little bit unique is that, as I go around the country watching all of these games, watching practices, there’s no other agenda but winning here. That’s kind of the essence that makes UConn special.”

Jay Bilas picked UConn to win the NCAA Tournament when last year’s bracket was revealed and said Saturday, “If you’re picking one team to win it (this year), you pick UConn.”

“This is kind of the separating time,” he said Friday. “And a good many of these players have been through it before. So they know they can continue to get better, not only through the end of the season, but they can get better through the conference tournament and then, whether they win or lose, go home and get better before the NCAA Tournament starts. There’s nothing under the rulebook that says you don’t get better as you keep playing, and they proved that last year they can continue to get better through tournament play and I don’t see why this year should be any different if they handle it the same way.”