It's hard to believe that only 5 days ago the Orange(men) were in danger of not even making the NCAA tourney. The team had suffered 3 straight loses to finish the conference season with a losing record for only the second time in Boeheim's coaching career. What's more, the losing streak featured an utterly forgettable pounding at the hands of the 15th place team in the league, the DePaul Blue Demons.
How things have changed. Two weeks ago this team couldn't seem to shoot straight. They appeared to have no interest in defending or rebounding. Even more worrisome was the fact that they exhibited virtually no on-court chemistry.
All of that has been forgotten in the space of a few days. In a miraculous turnaround, Syracuse showed it could win games playing virtually any style. They could win old-fashioned shootouts (86-84 over UConn), play a deadly transition game (74-73 over Cincinnati), or grid-it-out against defensive minded teams (58-57 over Georgetown, 61-61 over Pittsburgh). The poor on-court chemistry has turned into beautiful teamwork, as the Orange showed great balance in NYC. All five starters scored in double figures for the first two games, and the bench started to make major contributions.
All of these factors were evident early in Saturday night's championship game. Syracuse stormed out to a 25-10 lead on the strength of some hot outside shooting and potent transition offense. Pittsburgh, one of the best defensive teams in the nation, could not seem to contain the Orange. Nichols and Roberts combined to score 15 points during this run, highlighted by two deep threes from Nichols and a pair of dunks from Roberts.
The Panthers started to get back in the game by doing what they do best. Aaron Gray was a nuisance on the boards all evening, grabbing 12 missed shots. He repeatedly kept things alive for Pitt, and Antonio Graves and Karl Krauser combined to make 3 triples in the closing minutes of the first frame to cut SU's lead down to 34-25.
One of the beautiful things about college basketball is that sometimes the difference between champions and also-rans can be almost imperceptible. No one would suggest Syracuse dominated this tourney, as they managed to win the 4 games by a combined total of 8 points. This slim margin of victory bespeaks of the incredible determination and desire that the Orange showed each night in NYC.
That desire and determination was put to the test against Pittsburgh. The Orange managed to somehow hold off each one of Pitt's charges, using that big early cushion and riding it to victory. Syracuse led for almost the entire game, until a Sam Young layup gave Pitt its first lead of the game at 48-47 with 8:40 left. Gerry McNamara wouldn't have it though. The Panthers' only lead lasted all of 15 seconds as GMac canned a three pointer to bring SU back on top. This basket proved to be Gerry's last of the game.
At this point, both teams looked exhausted and neither was able to score for nearly four minutes. The offenses had no rhythm and the defensives were tight and physical. A Demetris Nichols (15 pts, 5 reb) trifecta extended the SU lead to 53-48 at 4:54. Pitt again fought back with back-to-back three pointers from Antonio Graves (14 pts) and Karl Krauser (16 pts, 4 reb, 5 ast) sandwiched between a Terrance Roberts lay-up.
On this evening, the late game heroics were initially provided by Eric Devendorf, who stepped up and made a tough contested 19 footer to put SU up at 57-54. A minute later, he was fouled by Levon Kendall, and calmly swished both free throws, giving SU another three point lead.
With less than 30 seconds left, Syracuse would again rely on its defense for victory. Devendorf and Krauser collided at the top of the key in what looked to be a surefire foul. The two teams appeared dazed for a split second, apparently waiting for a whistle that never came.
For the second night in a row, Nichols came up with the crucial loose ball, and found Gerry McNamara in the open court. Gerry's lead pass nearly sailed out of bounds, but Terrence Roberts (13 pts, 5 reb, 3 bs, 2 ast) made a tremendous catch and touch pass to Darryl Watkins, who was hustling back as a trailer on the play. Watkins grabbed the ball and jammed it home. It was sweet redemption for Roberts, who had been benched for a majority of the previous game.
With a 61-56 lead and less than 20 seconds left, the game appeared to be over. Things changed in the blink of an eye as Devendorf inexplicably tried to take a charge in the backcourt. Antonio Graves ran him over and it looked like Eric might go from hero to goat. Graves canned both free throws, giving Pitt new life.
The second half of the late game heroics were provided by Josh Wright. Wright played only 6 minutes in the game, but his 4 free throws at the 13 second and 7 second mark proved the final difference in the game. The first set of free throws were particularly impressive, as the refs inadvertently "iced" Wright by taking several minutes to review the tape to determine the amount of time left on the clock.
Wright's quartet of freebies offset a deep three from Krauser and SU held on in the final seconds for the win. Three Orange(men) finished in double figures and Darryl Watkins and Eric Devendorf narrowly missed joined them (9 points each). Watkins provided the heavy lifting on the inside with 11 rebounds and 3 blocks. Nearly every Orange player made a key play coming down the stretch, a true testament to the turnaround in team chemistry.
For his efforts over the weekend, Gerry McNamara was named tournament MVP. McNamara's career resume now includes 2 Big East Tourney Championships to go with his National Championship and a Sweet 16. If the Orange can maintain their hot play and advance into the second weekend of the tourney, Gerry would attain a four year-level of success that would supersede all other players who have ever worn an SU uniform.
Syracuse's fate in the NCAAs is yet to be determined, but the pairings will be announced tonight at 6 PM. By garnering the Big East automatic bid and slicing through 4 top-50 RPI teams (3 of which are nationally ranked), it would seem ludicrous if SU's seed were lower than a 7. The Orange are coming into the NCAAs with a strength of schedule ranked #3 in the nation and an RPI that is now in the teens. Wherever they end up, it will be a monumental improvement from where it looked like they were heading two weeks ago.
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