Syracuse moves on to the Final Four
The genesis of Syracuse's turnaround began the day clocks sprung forward, the day after suffering its worst setback of the season. Because the coaching staff - or rather head coach Jim Boeheim - apparently didn't get the time changing memo, the players took ownership of practice and as it turns out, of their season. Drills began, as did the process of sweating out the pain from a blowout suffered at Georgetown the day prior.
Based on the net cutting down results three weeks later, perhaps Boeheim should never adjust a clock again.
Carried by its suffocating 2-3 zone and buoyed by its three-week old resolve, Syracuse advanced to the Final Four by throttling Big East rival Marquette 55-39 on Saturday afternoon at the Verizon Center.
"It was a great win," said the 68-year-old Boeheim, who reached his fourth Final Four and the program's first since winning the National Championship in 2003. The Orange closed the regular season losing four of five games including a 61-39 rout suffered against Georgetown inside the same arena. Since then they have won seven of eight since including four in the NCAA Tournament, stifling opposing shooters at every turn.
"These guys have come a long ways from three weeks ago," the coach said. "Today someone reminded me we were here for another game and it's been a great transformation in that period. Our defense was tremendous in this tournament."
In this case, the numbers do not lie. Marquette, which scored 74 points in a win over Syracuse last month, shot an abysmal 22.6 percent (12 for 53) from the field. The Orange had more steals (10) than turnovers (6). Besides holding the Golden Eagles to a season-low 37 points, they forced 14 turnovers while finishing with a 19-0 advantage in points off turnovers.
The regional's Most Outstanding Player, Michael Carter-Williams had 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals for Syracuse. James Southerland had 16 points and three 3-pointers and C.J. Fair 13 points for the Orange (30-9), who will face the winner of the South Region next Saturday in Atlanta. No. 3 Florida and No. 4 play in the South regional finals on Sunday.
The Golden Eagles (25-9) made one 3-pointer over the final 37 minutes and finished 3 of 25 from beyond the arc.
In the four NCAA Tournament games, the Orange held opponents to 15.2 percent (14 of 92) from beyond the 3-point arc. Boeheim said, "the offense has been just enough." With that type of defense, just enough is more than good enough.
"They were fabulous," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. "They beat us from start to finish. We collectively tried everything we knew to try collectively."
Turns out the start to Marquette's finish essentially began on a clock-adjusting March 10.
"The clocks went back and the coaches were late to practice," Carter-Williams said. "We ran practice by ourselves . We went real hard and competed real hard, got our competitive edge back."
For long stretches of the regular season, Syracuse had the look of the team to beat thanks to an 18-1 start. Ending with 1-4 record - including a loss at Marquette and a 61-39 defeat in the same arena - changed that perception and dropped them from the Big East title chase. Then came a run to the Big East Tournament finals, then came a run through the East Region.
"It's pretty much a 180," said senior guard Brandon Triche. "After losing so many games in a row, we stayed positive, but, you know, you can't say we didn't lose confidence. We were probably unsure of ourselves a little bit. One thing we did is we kept working hard."
Once Boeheim arrived around 30 minutes late, he saw the transformation coming.
"We came down, we were a little late, I forgot to set my clock forward, is that right, spring? So I was a little late, we had a meeting upstairs and when I got down they were playing 4‑on‑4 and playing hard. I watched them for a few minutes and it was really a good ‑‑ real good thing. I thought our practices were really good after that," Boeheim said.
The Orange made Marquette work hard for shots, but even when the Golden Eagles found openings, they misfired. Leading scorer Vander Blue had 14 points, but missed 12 of 15 shots. Davante Gardner also had 14, but the Orange stymied the big man in the second half.
Trailing 19-7, Marquette briefly found space in the middle of the zone, closed the first half with a 11-5 run and entered the locker room down 24-18. Syracuse shut down such avenues from there
Syracuse opened the second half with a 13-7 spurt, capped by a Carter-Williams layup. It was coronation time over the final 10 minutes with the Golden Eagles stymied at every turn.
"We're starting off the games real well. Once we get a lead we try to build on it. We don't look back, we don't get comfortable, we always put the pressure on the other team. If they're going to comeback they're going to have to do something spectacular."