SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Where to begin?
Nearly three weeks ago, Syracuse lost to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament's second round. Admit it, we all thought it was an elimination game for either team, but especially for the Orange, who had just lost its third game to Jamie Dixon's squad this season. SU finished the regular season 19-13 overall, 9-9 in the ACC. However, its five wins against top 50 teams played crucial a few days later when the country saw "10 Syracuse" in the Midwest Region.
For players like Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, SU's first round game against Dayton had extra significance. The Flyers knocked the Orange out of the Tournament two years prior in Buffalo, just a few hours from the Syracuse campus. After its one-year self imposed postseason ban, the Orange returned to the NCAA Tournament and sought out revenge against 7th-seeded Dayton. 21 points from Malachi Richardson, 14 from Tyler Lydon and 18 rebounds from Tyler Roberson later, Syracuse upset Dayton, 70-51, and advanced to play Middle Tennessee State in the second round.
There's no question Syracuse would've rather played Middle Tennessee State than Michigan State; who wouldn't have? But with that said, MTSU was no slouch, as it just handled 2nd-seeded Michigan State, 90-81, in arguably the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. The Blue Raiders shot 56 percent from the floor against the Spartans, 58 percent from 3-point range and was only out-rebounded by two.
Syracuse, leading by just four at halftime, contained MTSU from behind the arc in the second half en route to a 25-point victory. Michael Gbinije scored a game-high 23 points and Tyler Lydon added 14 points and six blocks.
Most analysts claimed SU had an easy route to the Sweet Sixteen.
Four days prior, many of those same analysts were calling for a Dayton victory over the Orange. Two days later, Middle Tennessee State was the next Cinderella story of the Tournament, until Syracuse took care of business.
Not many people had Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen, and rightfully so. The Orange lost five of its last six games entering the NCAA Tournament, and having a potential matchup with Michigan State in the second round didn't seem favorable for Jim Boeheim's streaky team.
Luckily for Syracuse, Middle Tennessee took care of MSU, and SU advanced to Chicago.
Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer were going to get theirs, they've done it all season. The real test was: Could Syracuse contain both enough to prevail?
Sabonis finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds, while Wiltjer went off for 23 points. After getting out to an early 18-6 lead, Gonzaga felt in control. The Orange had to weather the storm, which it did. College basketball is a game of runs, and Friday's game vs. Gonzaga proved no different.
Gbinije led Syracuse with 23 points, Cooney added 15 of his own which showed senior guards win games in the NCAA Tournament. Gbinije and Cooney have consistently proved that this March.
Once SU went to its full-court press, Gonzaga struggled and momemtum switched hands. The Zags led by as many as nine points with under seven minutes to go, but Boeheim went to the press and everything changed.
Syracuse won, 63-60. But despite winning, it wasn't a "good matchup" for Syracuse, a team that struggled on the glass and interior defense all season. SU proved Gonzaga's guards were shaky once it applied pressure, but for 34 minutes, the Zags dominated.
Prove you're worthy
After trailing by as many as 16 points in the second half against top-seeded Virginia, Syracuse went on an improbable 15-0 run, and soon thereafter took the lead and never looked back.
Malachi Richardson, after a poor game against Gonzaga (3-for-14) and just two first-half points against UVA, scored 21 second-half points for the Orange. His 23 points tied a career-high, and led all scorers on Sunday. He was named the Midwest Region's Most Outstanding Player, while Gbinije was also named to the All-Tournament Team.
London Perrantes hit five first-half 3-pointers, which led to a UVA 14-point halftime lead. Richardson then took over and inserted himself into Syracuse NCAA Tournament history with arguably the best second half performance in program history.
SU's full-court press got the job done again on Sunday, which led to a six-point victory. The Orange out-rebounded UVA, 36-34, and held the Cavs to just eight offensive rebounds.
Improbable? Yes. Surprising? Maybe. But those who have followed Syracuse all year knew what this team was capable of. The Orange played its best basketball in the Bahamas during the Battle 4 Atlantis, and it seems as if they have found their stride again in the most important time of the year.
Next up: No. 1 North Carolina on Saturday. Tip off is scheduled for 8:49 p.m. ET on TBS.