Orange Survives and Advances to the Elite 8

Syracuse scratches, claws and wills a Sweet-16 victory over Gonzaga.

The NCAA Tournament is about surviving and advancing. Perhaps no game is more emblematic of that than Syracuse's 63-60 victory over Gonzaga Friday night. 

Michael Gbinije shot under 35% from the floor and made only one three-pointer. Malachi Richardson was 3-14 shooting. Tyler Lydon made only one field goal. Syracuse trailed by nine with 6:27 to play. They were down five with less than minutes to go. And yet, somehow, inexplicably, the Orange found themselves on the right side of the scoreboard. 

Leading by one with under one minute to play, Gonzaga was looking to extend their lead and perhaps clinch a victory. They went inside to Domantas Sabonis, who torched Syracuse all night to the tune of 19 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks. Lydon came up with one of his six critical blocks to give the Orange the ball back. 

Gbinije controlled and attacked the rim, as Syracuse did often in this Sweet-16 matchup. Kyle Wiltjer provided help defense and altered Gbinije's layup attempt. The ball bounced off the glass, off the rim and into a scrum under the basket. Lydon and Tyler Roberson both got a hand on it and deflected along the baseline towards a waiting Michael Gbinije. 

Gbinije collected the ball and went straight up with no resistance. He bounced the ball off the glass and into the net to give Syracuse a 61-60 lead with 22 seconds remaining.

"Mike just went after it," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "He wasn't going to be denied, getting that ball and putting it back in. He's been great for us all year. Of all the players I've coached, he's the most underrated player that I've coached." 

But the drama was not over. Gonzaga had a chance to answer and take the lead back. The Bulldogs had two players that had been killing Syracuse in the aforementioned Sabonis and Wiltjer. Wiltjer finished with a game-high 23 points on 9-17 shooting including 4-7 from beyond the arc. 

Gonzaga freshman guard Josh Perkins penetrated and tried to kick it out to the corner. Trevor Cooney read the play and rotated over, stepping in front of the pass for the steal. The officials blew the whistle with 11.2 seconds left, and somehow called Cooney out of bounds. Replays showed he was clearly in, but the call was not reversible. 

The Bulldogs would have one last chance. They tried to go to Wiltjer on the perimeter, but Syracuse threw a couple of defenders at him. He passed to Perkins, who tried to make a play. He drove and got into the lane, pulling up for what would have been a game winning floater.

Lydon, who was covering Sabonis inside, stepped up and blocked the shot. The United Center crowd erupted. The Syracuse bench erupted. Syracuse fans across the country erupted. 

"With 11 seconds, it's hard to get a good shot against the zone, and you know, I thought once they had to throw it out, I thought that gave us enough time," Boeheim said. "Tyler Lydon, for a freshman, made an unbelievable play because he normally stays back there, but both their big guys were high, so I think he saw that, and he read where Perkins was coming, and he just came up.

"That's a pretty big play for a freshman to make."

Lydon was subsequently fouled and hit two free-throws. A full court shot at the buzzer that would have tied the game fell harmlessly short and the Orange were still dancing, all the way to the Elite Eight. They will face Virginia on Sunday with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

"You know, I think it was a great basketball game," Boeheim said. "Gonzaga has got a tremendous team, and those two guys (Sabonis and Wiltjer) are as good as anybody that we've seen all year. I give these guys an unbelievable amount of credit. We were in a big hole with not that much time to go."

Syracuse was in a hole early as well, falling behind by as many as 11 in the first half. But as they've done all season, the Orange continued to fight. They closed the gap to just one point by halftime. 

Syracuse shot 36% from the floor on the night, compared to 44% for Gonzaga. The Zags made three more three-pointers than the Orange, which was offset by Syracuse's 14-16 effort at the charity stripe. The Bulldogs only took five free-throws all game, making four. 

Trevor Cooney continued his strong tournament with 15 points on 5-9 shooting and two steals. Gbinije had a team-high 20 points. He added four rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. Tyler Roberson was an animal on the boards with 12 rebounds, nine of them offensive. 

Roberson's effort throughout the game was critical and symbolized the heart of this Orange squad. 

"We fought back many times this year," Boeheim said. "We've been -- we were seven down with 1:22 to go against Virginia Tech, and that was a bigger hill to overcome. But these guys have fought all year, and every game we've been behind, we've been in some tough situations, and they've battled through them all year."

Sunday's Elite Eight matchup with Virginia will tip at 6:09pm Eastern and will be televised on TBS. 


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