For the moment, the win keeps SU's tourney hopes alive. Syracuse now posts a 20-11 overall record, along with an RPI ranking of 36 and a SOS of 6. While these are all seemingly adequate numbers, the Orange will need another heroic performance tomorrow against UConn before any dance cards can be punched with certainty.
In reality, SU avoided a "bubble burst" by the very slimmest of margins. McNamara's winning shot followed a near complete collapse over the game's final 13 minutes. The Orange surrendered a 57-44 lead, thanks to an inability to take care of the ball coupled with some mystifyingly rushed offensive sets. Boeheim's trademark stall offense seemed to be shelved for the afternoon, and for once it appeared that SU fans (one and all) would have welcomed it back with open arms.
The Bearcats methodically got back into the game by attacking the interior of the SU zone. Some strong free throw shooting from Eric Hicks and James White helped to cut into the deficit, and a steal and layup by Devan Downey gave Cincinnati a 67-66 lead at the 3:45 mark. During this stretch, McNamara seemed intent on allowing Cincinnati ample time to make mount their comeback as he rushed several shots in row, culminating in a 6-foot floater in the lane that only managed to travel 5 feet.
With just under 3 minutes left, Eric Devendorf drove into the paint and took an off-balanced shot that Demetris Nichols rebounded and stuck back in to put SU back on top 68-67. James White then responded by hitting his 5th and final three pointer of the game and things looked bleak for SU, down 70-68 with under a minute and a half left.
After the SU offense had gone completely AWOL for about 10 minutes, McNamara and Watkins executed a perfect pick and roll that Mookie capped off with a dunk to tie the game. White fired up another three, but missed this time and Watkins grabbed the defensive board. Terrance Roberts was fouled on the ensuing play and he went to the line with 35 seconds left.
With the season hanging in the balance, Roberts was probably the last player that coach Boeheim wanted to see on the line. He was coming off a dreadful 1-7 showing in his last game, but today he calmly stepped up and drained the first to give SU a 71-70 advantage. Even though he missed the second shot, that one point proved to be crucial in the final margin of the game.
At this point, the real meltdown surfaced for the Orange. James White made a great cut to the foul-line gap in the SU zone and drained a 15-footer to put the Bearcats back on top with 11 seconds remaining. In the rush to get the ball inbounded to Eric Devendorf, Demetris Nichols threw a lazy pass that was intercepted by Cincinnati freshman Devan Downey. Devendorf astutely fouled Downey, and this looked to be the final blow that would send the Orange packing into the NIT.
Downey stepped up and hit the first free throw to make the score 73-71, but he missed the second. Roberts grabbed the board and got the ball to McNamara, who was immediately fouled by a flying Jihad Muhammad. It was Cincinnati's 6th team foul, so SU as forced to inbounds the ball side-out with just over 6 seconds remaining.
McNamara received the inbounds pass and took a second to gather himself, then sped up court in search of an open look. With Muhammad cutting off his drive to the left, Gerry pulled a dangerous behind-the-back dribble and narrowly slipped between a second defender. He appeared to take a second step to gather himself, then soared towards the basket. Gerry somehow managed to get a running one-handed-20-foot floater up and over Eric Hicks, who had rushed out to contest the shot. Miraculously, the shot found the bottom of the net!
Cincinnati still had 0.5 seconds left on the clock and ran a play for Jihad Muhammad, who launched a 50-footer at the buzzer. The shot careened off the front of the rim, giving SU a win and the right to play the Connecticut Huskies on Thursday at noon in the Big East Quarterfinals.
Among the keys to the Syracuse victory today were a renewed intensity and commitment to defense, at least over the game's first 30 minutes or so. The SU zone was much more focused and active than it had been in recent losses to Georgetown, DePaul, and Villanova. Cincinnati was able to score against it on occasion, but it was evident that SU was much more active on the boards and much more alert when it came to grabbing loose balls and fighting for possession.
The problem was that the SU starters basically played the entire second half and without getting any rest, seemed to tire down the stretch. The loose balls and rebounds didn't come quite so easily in final minutes, but fortunately the Orange(men) had enough left to escape with a victory.
The Syracuse offense looked pretty good in the first half, that is, when it wasn't turning the ball over. Eric Devendorf had immense trouble handling Cincinnati's pressure and finished with 7 turnovers thanks to some very lazy passes. McNamara also contributed to the confounding display of ballhandling ineptness with 4 turnovers of his own, but at least he countered that with 9 assists.
Despite the ballhandling woes, SU opened a 9 point lead at the 6:17 mark of the first stanza after Darryl Watkins scored 5 quick points in a 20 second span. Watkins and Roberts both had strong performances, combining for 31 points and 16 rebounds on the afternoon. Cincinnait fought back with James White and Eric Hicks pouring in 10 points over the next 4 minutes, and a Jihad Muhammad 3 pointer cut SU's lead down to 2 points.
It looked like the teams were playing to a first half stalemate, but then Gerry McNamara stepped in to make a huge play. Much like Devan Downey took advantage of a careless SU inbounds play at the end of the game, GMac stole a similar pass just before the break. In a classic "No! No! No! Yes!" play, Gerry took one dribble, squared to the basket, and fired up a three pointer while the rest of his teammates were on the other side of the court. SWISH. Not the way many coaches would draw it up, but this play underscored the type of confidence that Gerry had today and also proved to foreshadow the game-winning shot.
Syracuse shot 45.5% from the field in the game while holding Cincinnati to 40.6% the best defensive effort they have shown since the West Virginia game. They also outrebounded the Bearcats 37-31 with Roberts leading the way with 9 and Watkins and Nichols contributing 7 and 6, respectively. The ‘Cuse will need this kind of play from the frontcourt tomorrow night if they hope to upset the Huskies.
A win tomorrow would all but ensure SU of an NCAA tourney bid, while a loss means that the team's future will be up in the air on Sunday night. Either way, we're in for some more excitement. Can your heart handle it?