Madison Square Garden might want to start charging Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse University men's basketball team rent with as much time as the Orange have spent on the floor of the World's Most Famous Arena over the past few days. Just one day after SU outlasted Connecticut in an epic six-overtime thriller that will go down as one of the best college basketball games ever played, the Orange were pushed to the bring yet again. And once again, they responded.
Syracuse got 22 points from Eric Devendorf, none bigger than his final two on a breakaway layup with seven seconds remaining to put the nail in West Virginia's mostly self-made coffin as the Orange defeated WVU 74-69 in overtime.
The Mountaineers, making their third Big East semi-finals appearance in five seasons, turned the ball over 18 times and did not score in overtime until 1:20 remained. Even still, West Virginia had an opportunity to at least extend the game at the end of overtime.
After a pair of free throws by Devin Ebanks got the Mountaineers to within two points with 21 seconds remaining, SU's Paul Harris was only able to hit one-of-two from the foul line. The Mountaineers corralled the rebound, sped up court and may have forced the issue just a little bit too much. Freshman point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant, who had earlier given the Mountaineers an opportunity to stay within striking distance at the end of regulation with an admirable hustle play, took a guarded three-pointer from the top of the key that clanked off the rim. West Virginia's coaches were begging the officials for a foul, but those inquiries fell on deaf ears.
"Truck just tried to make a play," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins. "You know, I don't know. I think they took a chance probably trying to block it, in all honesty. I mean they made – they apparently played a good play. I didn't really see it so I don't know. (Bryant) was just trying to make a play."
The long rebound fell right to Paul Harris, who hit Devendorf in stride for the easy basket.
Truth be told, though, WVU likely lost this game in the first half. Despite having a chance to go to the conference finals, the Mountaineers came out with very little enthusiasm and watched the Orange build a lead as large as eight points in the opening 20 minutes.
For the most part this season when the Mountaineers have been behind early it has been because they missed shots. On Friday, however, that was not the problem for West Virginia as it made 12-of-21 from the floor in the first half. Instead, WVU got outplayed in one of its key areas as the Orange held a decisive 18-12 edge in rebounding after the first half. Included in that total for Syracuse were seven offensive boards leading to 15-second chance points.
Capping the forgettable opening frame for the Mountaineers was Devendorf's 65-foot heave at the horn that fell right through the hoop. Last night, Devendorf had a potential game-winner waved off after replays concluded that the shot was still on his hand when time expired.
"He must have owed us one, somehow," Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said of his junior guard. "We gambled on the defensive play and gave up a wide-open look (which Bryant knocked down with four seconds to play), but I guess Eric – maybe – I hope he's got another one or two of them."
In the second half, the Orange extended their lead to nine points before West Virginia came roaring back with an impressive 13-0 run to take the lead at 42-38. SU, however, answered right back with a three from Andy Rautins (who hit four on the night to finish with 12 points).
Though the 13-0 run to grab the lead was nice, an additional defensive stop and basket would have been even better, and might have even been enough to put the tireless Orange away.
"That's how you want to get every team," said WVU's Wellington Smith. "When you are on a run like we were, you just want to try to kill them for the rest of the half. Obviously we didn't do that. We just had too many mishaps."
Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn was the biggest thorn in West Virginia's side once more. The Mountaineers had plenty of trouble slowing him down in their first meeting with SU on February 6 and Friday's game was more of the same. The sophomore point guard from Niagara Falls, N.Y., played all 45 minutes after playing 67 of 70 possible minutes last night. He finished with 15 points and nine assists.
"I think he's the most talented point guard in the country," said Huggins. "He's really hard to stay in front of. He's a great, great athlete. He's got great speed. He's as fast with the ball as anybody in transition. He shoots it. You try to go under a screen, he steps behind it and makes it. He's just – he's a great player.
Even with Flynn powering the Orange back into the lead, the Mountaineers remained close. In fact, Flynn left the door slightly ajar by missing the second of two foul shots with 15 seconds to play, leaving SU's lead at two points. Syracuse had two fouls to give and used them both. Then, WVU's Devin Ebanks was fouled with four seconds remaining, and calmly sank both free throws to tie the game with the soldout MSG crowd on its feet.
"What I try to do is basically clear by mind, not let the crowd affect me, just focus on the big free throws that I've made," he explained. "Fortunately, I made them. I made them. Unfortunately in overtime, we couldn't finish down the stretch."
As such, the Mountaineers missed out on a chance to play for the first Big East title in school history.