Comeback Falls Short

The 2006-07 basketball season came to an end on Wednesday night as the Syracuse Orange fell to the Clemson Tigers 74-70 at Littlejohn Coliseum in the NIT quaterfinals. Syracuse mounted an impressive comeback late in the game but ultimately was victimized by poor ballhandling and Clemson's red hot first-half perimeter shooting. The Orange finished the season at 24-11 overall.

The easy thing to do would be to reduce the entirety of this game to the last crucial play. Syracuse had come back from 17 points down with 7:55 remaining to cut the lead to 3 at 70-73. With 10 seconds left, everyone in Littlejohn Coliseum knew that the Orange would get the ball to their senior All-Big East performer Demetris Nichols for one last three-point attempt to tie the game. Eric Devendorf made a furious drive up the court and handed the ball off to Josh Wright while Nichols set up for his patented curl move. But then the unexpected happened and Wright pulled up for the game-tying three-pointer... The shot clanged off the back of the rim...

This is the type of play that fans will debate until they are blue in the face, but it doesn't negate the fact that the game was really lost in the previous 39 minutes, not in the final 10 seconds. Wright had an open look and missed. Unfortunately, it happens. Would I have preferred that Nichols take the shot, even with two dudes draped all over him? Of course. But, the opportunity did not present itself and so the Orange will go back to Syracuse rather than head to the Garden for the NIT semifinals.

If people are looking for someone/something to blame, they'd be better served to analyze the circumstances that brought the Orange into this end-game situation in the first place. Poor ballhandling, poor perimeter defense, and poor offensive awareness are what landed Syracuse in their deep, dark 17-point hole. The Orange played one of their worst first halves of the season, falling behind 38-27 at the break as Clemson's sophomore SG K.C. Rivers went bonkers with 21 first half points. Head coach Jim Boeheim exacerbated things by picking up a technical foul at the close of the half, which allowed the Tigers to extend their lead to 40-27 at the outset of the second stanza.

Syracuse essentially traded baskets for the next 12 minutes and Clemson eventually pulled out to a 58-41 lead with just under 8 minutes to go. Syracuse's perimeter defense had been utterly lifeless and their offense had been confounded by Clemson's defensive pressure. There was very little indication that the Orange stood even a remote chance of getting back in the game, but things began to change when Boeheim switched to man to man defense late in the game. Unfortunately, this would be a case of "too little, too late".

Even so, the defensive switch allowed Paul Harris to become energized. His fierce desire to win was on full display Wednesday evening as he had several crucial defensive rebounds, a key assist, and two steals late in the game. His play helped position the Orange to within one possession at the close of the game, but at the same time he couldn't quite rise to the level needed to completely take over. He missed two important free throws and also committed a costly offensive foul. Nonetheless, his intensity and fire rubbed off on his teammates and Syracuse found a way to claw back into the game.

The man to man defense was the first strategic move, but shortly thereafter Boeheim went to a fullcourt press. While the Orange recorded only two turnovers out of the press, they were able to extend the game by fouling. Clemson made only 50% of their attempts for the stripe and that allowed SU to continually close the gap. After a missed free throw by James Mays, Eric Devendorf scored on a lefty-lay-up with 1:10 left to pull within one point at 67-66.

Clemson's little-used forward David Potter then scored over Matt Gorman on a putback with 33 seconds left, but Nichols answered with a putback of his own at the 23 second mark. On the ensuing inbounds, SU made the mistake of fouling K.C. Rivers, Clemson's only competent free throw shooter, and he made both shots, setting up the final SU possession where Wright missed the open three. Rivers finished the game with 29 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 5 treys (on 10 attempts).

Going back to the first half, Syracuse had extreme difficulty in guarding the perimeter. Clemson hit 7 trifectas before the break, including a ridiculously long one by Rivers on an inbounds play with only 3 seconds left on the shot clock. It seemed that every time that Clemson got deep in the shot clock, Rivers or Cliff Hammonds would hit an open three pointer over SU's perimeter defenders. Without question, Devendorf, Rautins, and Wright all had lackadaisical moments at the top of the zone.

On the other side of the ball, Syracuse ran into significant problems with Clemson's defensive pressure. The Tigers opened in a zone press and played much of the first half that way until SU proved they could beat. While SU committed 8 first-half turnovers, the more obvious damage was done by speeding up the pace of the game. Devendorf repeatedly took (and missed) early shots while Nichols and Wright unleashed a barrage of turnovers. The two combined for 10 ballhandling miscues.

The biggest issue in the game was that the Orange were not prepared for the team speed and quickness of the Tigers. The Clemson players repeatedly forced SU's ballhandlers into bobbling the ball or mishandling passes. It wasn't until the second half that the Syracuse players calmed down and began to run their offense as Boeheim had implored them to do for much of the first stanza.

The late game surge was sparked by a technical foul on Trevor Booker for hanging on the rim after a missed dunk attempt. Devendorf, Nichols, and Roberts then led the SU surge. The Tornado poured in 15 points and added 6 rebounds. His putback of a Devendorf miss at the 2:56 mark helped the Orange stay in the game, but he eventually fouled out.

Nichols finished with 20 points, but once again had a quiet first half. His free-throw shooting down the stretch was huge and helped SU to cut into the gap. Devendorf scored 23 points on the evening, but he abandoned his playmaking ways for a more "me-first" approach. After averaging 6.5 apg in the first two NIT contests, he registered only one helper on Wednesday. Still, his ability to finish in the lane allowed SU to stay close and avoid being blown out.

Eventually, Syracuse's foul troubles caught up with the team. The 'Cuse committed 29 fouls on the evening and three separate players were disqualified (Harris, Watkins, and Roberts). Clemson did all they could to choke away the game at the line, but even their mediocre 17-34 showing was not enough for the Orange to steal away a victory.

In the end, it was a fitting finale to a season where the Orange were often good, but never quite good enough. Wednesday's "almost-but-not-quite" comeback seemed to perfectly mirror the "almost-but-not-quite" regular season that resulted in a NIT berth instead of the expected NCAA bid. While most SU fans balked at the apparent NCAA snub with an ingrained sense of entitlement, this addition of the Orange simply left too much of the decision-making process up to the dreaded big conference/big money decision-makers. As the adage goes: If you play with fire, you'll get burned.

Syracuse finished the year 24-11 overall, which is respectable enough, but other than a signature win over Georgetown and a pair of NIT victories, the team never managed to achieve a level of consistency that would allow them to vault over the NCAA bubble and into the realm of the true contenders. Certainly the potential was there, with a sharp-shooting small forward, a defensive-minded center, and a tough slashing combo guard, but "potential" is the word we've been hearing for four years now, and unfortunately, this team never quite lived up to it.

It doesn't mean that I won't fondly remember Nichols' excellent senior year, or Roberts' heroic efforts on one leg, or Devendorf's array of whirling dervish moves, but it does mean that I always be left to wonder "what might have been"?

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