Last year Syracuse self-imposed an NCAA tournament ban. This year many people felt the Orange didn’t belong in the NCAA tournament again after they finished 9–9 in the ACC and lost their conference-tournament opener to Pittsburgh. But Syracuse not only got a bid, it took advantage of a busted bracket and then pulled off arguably the most impressive stretch of basketball any team has played in the entire tournament to reach the Final Four.
Down 37–21 one possession into the second half and 56–43 with 8:13 left against a top-seeded Virginia team that boasts the nation’s fifth-best adjusted defensive efficiency, the Orange abandoned their patented 2–3 zone in favor of a full-court press that forced six turnovers and changed the game. On offense, Syracuse exploded for a 21–2 run that carried it to a 68–62 win in the Midwest regional final. Freshman guard Malachi Richardson scored a game-high 23 points, all but two coming in the second half. With Syracuse down nine and 7:30 remaining, Richardson hit a three-pointer that ignited a 15–0 spurt. He also provided the layup that gave the Orange their first lead since it was 8–5 and then followed it with a three-pointer for a four-point advantage. Syracuse’s lead eventually reached 64–58 before Virginia finally ended its scoring drought with a layup by senior forward Anthony Gill. The Cavaliers had a three-point try to tie the game with 14 seconds remaining, but Devon Hall missed and the Orange closed it out at the foul line.
Why it matters
Syracuse is hardly a Cinderella, despite the fact that it is the first No. 10 seed to reach the Final Four. But as the Orange head for Houston and the sixth Final Four in school history, there’s no denying the fairytale element of this team. Last March the NCAA handed Syracuse severe penalties after a long-running investigation of the school’s athletic department that resulted, in part, in a nine-game suspension this year for coach Jim Boeheim and the vacating of 108 wins. Syracuse then found itself on the bubble earlier this month after it lost five of its last six games before the NCAA tournament to fall to 19–13. But the Orange beat No. 7 Dayton in the first round and took advantage of 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee’s upset of No. 2 Michigan State to reach the Sweet 16. Once there, Syracuse rallied late to beat No. 11 Gonzaga, itself an unexpected regional semifinalist, and then shocked the Cavaliers.
For Virginia, it’s another bitter end to what had been a spectacular season. The Cavaliers finished 29–8 and though they didn’t win the ACC regular-season title for the first time in three years and dropped the ACC tournament final, they entered the NCAAs as a No. 1 seed and seemed certain to finally breakthrough to the first Final Four under Tony Bennett when they routed No. 4 Iowa State in the Sweet 16. Senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC player of the year, finished with 12 points but made just 2 of 14 from the field. London Perrantes had 18 points on six three-pointers, but five of them came in the first half.
Another familiar foe awaits Syracuse in Houston, where the Orange will take on the winner of Sunday’s East regional final between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 6 Notre Dame. Syracuse beat the Fighting Irish by 15 points on Jan. 28 in its only matchup of the season and lost twice to the Tar Heels.