Orange were tough to bounce
They came into the NCAA Tournament with only two losses, but has there been any elite team - any No. 1-seeded team - in recent memory that took more shots to the head and heart and kept getting off the canvas than Syracuse?
With the mess involving former longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine and the ongoing eligibility issues of sophomore center Fab Melo, coach Jim Boeheim was forced to adjust. Controversy swirled around the program all season.
But the Orange kept winning, clawing their way to Saturday night’s East Regional final at TD Garden against Ohio State.
The winning finally stopped, and so did Syracuse’s season, as the Buckeyes leaped into next week’s Final Four in New Orleans by hurdling to a 77-70 victory.
As was the case in their two previous losses, keeping Syracuse down proved to be difficult.
Ohio State led early in the first half by 7 points and quickly lost the lead.
In the second half, the Buckeyes went from a 29-29 tie at halftime to a 10-point lead six minutes into the second half.
Syracuse eventually cut it to 1.
Ohio State built its margin to 8 with 59 seconds left and in 10 seconds the Orange cut it in half.
But this time, Syracuse had no more mojo, no more comebacks, and the tension and disappointment could be seen in the players’ faces and heard in their voices.
“We just came up short,’’ said Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine, who in 33 minutes did what he could to extend the season with 14 points and six assists.
The Orange did not point fingers. They could have, against an officiating crew of John Higgins, Michael Nance, and Thomas O’Neil, who called touch fouls and ignored what appeared to be muggings.
It worked in Ohio State’s favor. The Buckeyes took 42 foul shots, made 31 of them, compared with the Orange’s more modest total of 25 free throws (they made 20).
Boeheim was outraged and aggravated enough in the first half to draw his first technical foul of the season.
When asked about it, he simply said no comment. When pushed, he gave his best sarcastic assessment.
“I guess we just fouled them too many times,’’ said Boeheim, who watched three players - Rakeem Christmas, Dion Waiters, and James Southerland - pick up four fouls by the 12-minute mark of the second half.
“I thought we fought as hard as we fought all year,’’ said Boeheim, “just like we do every game. I thought our defense was good. I just thought we lost a little offensive patience in the first half.’’
The Orange said they were not about to change their style of play despite the way the game was turning, forcing them to look for 3-point shots to climb back into the game.
“We’re going to play the we’ve been playing all year,’’ said Jardine. “Like Coach said, tonight wasn’t really our night on the offensive end, but I think we’ve done a really great job of sticking with it. That’s what we’ve done all year and that’s why it hurts so much.’’
Jardine also wouldn’t blame the officials. “I think we had a chance to win the game no matter what, with the refs or without them giving us any calls.’’
For seniors Jardine and forward Kris Joseph, the loss will leave a bitter taste in their careers, which has been mostly filled with success.
Boeheim offered his congratulations and praise.
“Well, they’ve been great,’’ said Boeheim. “They’ve won more games in these four years than anybody in a senior class we’ve ever had. These last two years they’ve been great starting, and they’ve been good leaders.
“They’ve really done everything you could ask from them, really. There’s nothing you could ask out of those guys. They played . . . they had the best year . . . Syracuse has had in the Big East Conference, which is always tough. And it was just as tough this year as it’s ever been. And we hadn’t beaten Louisville in seven games, and we beat them twice and they’re in the Final Four, so they must be pretty good.
“We had never beat Connecticut three times, we did that. We won on their campus, which we’ve never done. We won 17 games, which we’ve never done in the Big East. Only one other school ever has.
“They’ve just had an unbelievable career, really, these guys. I don’t think you can give them enough credit for what Scoop and Kris have done.’’
For Syracuse, Jardine, Joseph, Boeheim and the rest of the Orange, this remarkable and turbulent season is over.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.