I think it’d be a stretch to say any of us were expecting this. I know I certainly wasn’t. Hell, I wasn’t even sure that Syracuse would get onto the right side of the bubble, based on how the season ended, and with the Orange failing to reach 20 regular season wins.
I even fretted over whether or not Syracuse would make the wrong kind of history. Never in Jim Boeheim’s career has he had two straight seasons with fewer than 20 victories, and after winning 18 games a year ago and heading into the postseason with 19 this year, it was certainly a possibility that stat would change.
Turns out, I didn’t have to worry at all. The Orange have reeled off four straight wins and find themselves in the fifth Final Four of Jim Boeheim’s career. He’s won his last four games against 1-seeds in the tournament, and the 23-13 Orange have North Carolina next after staging a fairly miraculous comeback against an incredibly well coached Virginia squad that basically everyone in thew world expected to roll over 10-seed Syracuse.
To say that the final 10 minutes of last night’s game were uncharacteristic for Virginia would be an understatement. Tony Bennett had entered last night’s game with a 68-0 record with the Hoos when leading by double digits at halftime. He left the game with a record of 68-1 in that situation.
There were multiple reasons why the Hoos coughed up their lead, and Syracuse came away with the win. Boeheim made the terrific decision to begin pressing with nearly 10 minutes left, and it changed the game entirely. And let’s make one thing clear: Virginia didn’t have a particularly tough time breaking the press. In fact, only once did they fail to advance the ball past half court, when Malachi Richardson made a terrific play on an errant pass, saving it back in off of one of the UVA players to give the Orange possession.
But other than that, Virginia broke the press with relative ease. The thing is, pressing isn’t always about forcing turnovers. It’s about forcing tempo, and that’s exactly what Syracuse did last night.
Virginia is methodical, both on offense and defense. If the game had remained of the half court variety last night, there’s basically no doubt that the Cavs would have been victorious. Yes, Syracuse had begun chipping away at the 14 point halftime margin, but it wasn’t enough. I kept thinking to myself during those first 10 minutes of the second half that the Orange needed to treat each small segment between TV timeouts as mini-games.
Win the next four minutes, and then the next four, and the next, and so on. You just can’t win the whole game at once when you’re coming from what was, at one point, a 16 point deficit. You have to make smart decisions and, even when playing a team like Virginia, be methodical yourself.
And that’s why Virginia’s meltdown – aided to a tremendous degree by the excellent play on offense from Malachi Richardson – was so shocking.
Each time Virginia broke the press, I fully expected them to pull the ball out and run their half court offense. The thing was? They didn’t. They rushed shots, and missed. Anthony Gill traveled under the basket when he should have had a relatively easy layup. The Orange started to dictate the tempo, and Virginia became utterly lost on how to handle the faster speed of the game.
And you have to give credit to the way Syracuse’s players gritted it out and kept chipping away. I’ve been watching Syracuse basketball my entire life, and I’m just not sure I’ve ever seen an Orange team with as much heart as this one displays. Full disclosure here: during the team’s big run down the stretch, even before the game was sealed, I was thinking about that heart, and what an incredible effort they’d put in, and the pride I felt for the team got me a little misty-eyed. I’m a man, and I’ve got the playoff scruff to prove it, and I can admit that things got a little dusty.
How can you not swell with pride at the way this team performed down the stretch?
Heading into last night’s game, Virginia had been nearly unstoppable on offense in the NCAA Tournament. They’d shot 55.2%, 55.8%, and 56.1% from the field – collectively – in their first three games. But last night, the length, and the athletes, and that 2-3 zone that doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it deserves because too many people view it as a gimmick and dismiss it as such, held one of the most efficient offensive teams in America to 41.5% shooting.
The Orange clamped down on the Hoos in that final 10 minute stretch, and at the same time, came to life with one of the best offensive second halves any team has ever posted on a Tony Bennett-coached UVA club. Syracuse – led by 21 second half points from Richardson – scored 47 points after halftime, and did not commit a single turnover. Not one. That is absolutely mind-boggling, particularly against a strong, physical, fundamentally sound defensive team like Virginia.
Basically, Syracuse needed to perform flawlessly in the game’s final 10 minutes in order to have a shot at winning. And you know what? That’s exactly what they did.
And now, we’re on to Houston, and the Final Four. The most improbable Final Four run in Syracuse history, and the first 10-seed to ever win an Elite Eight game.
Personally, I’m just hoping the magic continues, because while I’m busy with work on Saturday and can’t venture down to Houston, Monday is wide open, and I’ve got access to a ticket. I’ve never actually been down to Houston, despite having lived in Texas since the summer of 2005.
I’d say Monday’s as good a time as any to discover the city for the first time. Wouldn’t you?