Gonzaga had no chance to catch the Orange, like Kansas the top seed in their region, by surprise on Sunday. And once it became obvious that the talent advantage was squarely on Syracuse's side, it was only a matter of how huge the final margin would be.
It was 22, an 87-65 Syracuse win in the second round of the West Regional at HSBC Arena, and it could have been worse -- the Orange, now 30-4, led by 32 points, 73-41, with 12 minutes left. And the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (27-7) can only be grateful that Wes Johnson isn't one to pad his individual stats, or else he could have piled up more than his season-high 31 points.
The win furthered a Syracuse season that seems relatively upset-proof -- their four combined regular-season and postseason losses, all to Big East teams, don't resemble the kind of surprises sprung in the previous three days not only to Kansas but to Villanova, Georgetown and other high seeds. They were beaten, not stunned.
"They've come to play every game. I've never had a team that has come to play every game,'' said coach Jim Boeheim. "We'd like to think that happens, in a perfect world we live in, which we don't live in. That doesn't happen.'' The only time it did, he added, was in the now-infamous exhibition game to LeMoyne, when, he said, "I coached ... like some kind of idiot.''
That game served to further lower already-low expectations for a team picked sixth in the Big East preseason poll, but which is now in the Sweet 16 for the second straight season, and which got there without injured forward Arinze Onuaku for either tournament game.
"We just always play with a chip on our shoulders,'' said guard Scoop Jardine. "We are the team that was doubted going into the season, so we just concentrate on playing Syracuse basketball.''
Syracuse did seem ripe for a knockout at the hands of a Gonzaga team that is big and athletic, shoots well, and has a well-known history of NCAA upsets. It would seem logical that the losses by Kansas and Villanova scared the Orange straight -- but, they insist, those kind of lessons weren't necessary.
"Yeah, you could say that,'' Johnson said of the theory that Kansas's loss to Northern Iowa was a wake-up call, "but we didn't want to lose. We just didn't want to go home.''
They lost what interior bulk they had left when Rick Jackson committed his third foul with 8:58 left in the first half and Gonzaga down just 22-21. Yet Syracuse was the one to capitalize, scoring the next nine points, sparked by the beginning of an unexpected outburst by freshman point guard Brandon Triche. Ineffective for the last month of the season because of a skid attributed to hitting the freshman wall, Triche nailed a three, then slashed through the lane for a layup in the middle of that run.
Later, after Gonzaga had closed to within 32-28 with four minutes left in the half, Triche bolted down the lane for another layup that was goaltended, fed Johnson for a three, went backdoor for a layup and drained another three. Suddenly, with less than a minute left, Syracuse was up 46-30. The first eight minutes of the second half -- a 26-9 run featuring 14 of Andy Rautins' 24 points -- sealed the deal.
Triche scored 13 in the game, all in the first half, seven during that decisive four-minute stretch. "You're talking about 13 points we're not getting,'' Boeheim said. "(Without them) then it's a six- or eight-point game.''
That zone, that nasty zone. Gonzaga did a nice job getting its big players inside of it early, leading to opportunities for forward Elias Harris and 7-foot center Robert Sacre. But either Syracuse closed those holes, or Gonzaga stopped looking for them, because the Bulldogs started settling for jumpers about midway through the first half. The subsequent misses led to the early and secondary transition chances -- meaning tons of driving lanes and open threes. The result? The Orange ran away and hid, and Gonzaga ended up missing 18 of its 21 3-point tries. Syracuse made 12 of 25.
Game Ball Goes To
Johnson. He got it all started with three-pointers the first two times he touched the ball. Gonzaga never figured him out. When they tried, others -- mainly Rautins and Brandon Triche -- got all the open looks they wanted. When the Bulldogs tried to stay with them, Johnson went right back to work scoring. Yet his prettiest basket came from well inside the arc, a classic fingerroll after reeling in a deflected pass in transition five minutes into the second half. It pushed the lead to 26 and forced a Gonzaga timeout.
Heart Goes Out To
Harris. At one point he scored 10 straight points for his team in the first half, and it wasn't a good thing -- it was when Syracuse was first pulling away midway through the first half. At halftime he had 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting, and the rest of the Bulldogs had 16 on 7-for-21 shooting. he finished with 24, plus eight rebounds. He's only a freshman, though, and he'll have big tournament games again before he heads to the NBA.
Syracuse takes the bus back up the interstate, then heads to Salt Lake City for Thursday's Sweet 16 game against fifth-seeded Butler, which has won 22 straight games.
Boeheim, on the parity in college basketball that renders games like Kansas' and Villanova's losses as something other than upsets: "There's no doubt in my mind that Northern Iowa was better than Kansas, and St. Mary's outplayed Villanova, simple as that. Those are good teams, and if you don't play well, you're gonna get beat, simple as that."