Monday, March 28, 2016

It's So Crazy I Feel Like It's Not Real

I admit it. I gave up. And this wasn't one of my half-hearted, prepare-for-the-worst give ups, this was the real-deal, game's-over, start-dealing-with-the-hurt give up. There were 9 and a half minutes left. The Orange had gotten behind by 16 points. Then they cut it to 8.
Virginia hit 3 3-pointers and it was back to 15.
And I'm pretty sure everyone reading this had pretty much the same thoughts.
But not Chase. I told him it was over, hoping that if we started mourning early, the grieving process wouldn't result in tears when the stone-cold truth finally set in.
Chase said "it's never over til it's over." And even more importantly, he believed it.
It's great to be 8.

I'm still in shock over what transpired over the next 10 minutes and I promise to watch that stretch again and have a more detailed, thoughtful, basketball analysis of one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the NCAA Tournament.

But for now I just want to speak from the heart.

I have always given Coach Boeheim a tough time for mostly 3 things but they all changed tonight:

1) His prickliness. He's a grumpy old curmudgeon. Sometimes it's cute and acceptable, other times it's rude and condescending. Tonight, even though he barely cracked a smile he said he's never been prouder of a group than he was of this team.

2) His tournament record. Yes, it's good, and he's now going to his 5th Final Four, but with all the great teams, 1 title seems too few, especially considering all the upsets (Navy, Richmond, Vermont, Texas A&M, Marquette, Dayton) all double-digit seeds that knocked off superior Orange teams. And until tonight, the Orange had never pulled off a major, shocking upset in the tournament.

3) His strategy. He plays 2-3 until the cows come home and if you can beat it, well then, he'll shake your hand and offer kind wishes for luck in the next round. Tonight he changed, he adjusted. He saw that when given time Virginia was picking apart the zone and nailing 3-pointers from the place now known as Curryland. But he made an adjustment, threw something at them that they weren't expecting and it helped them win the game.

As I tried to rationalize with an 8-year-old I explained that Syracuse would have to score nearly every time they had the ball.
And wouldn't you know it, they pretty much did, scoring on 12 straight possessions that turned a 54-39 deficit into a 64-58 lead.

Malachi Richardson provided the spark offensively, nailing 3s, and even more importantly driving to the basket and getting fouled. You were impressed when a freshman named Gerry McNamara scored 18 points in the first half of a tournament game (yes, I know it was the Final), how about a freshman scoring 21 in the second half, when every single one was crucial.

And even more amazingly perhaps, Tyler Lydon, helped seal the victory with his defense (5 more blocks, 2 down the stretch) and his rebounding.

He also made a 3-pointer with one shoe, though that part may have been forgotten with all the other much more improbable things that occurred later.

And as always it was the senior duo of Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije who led this team back by always making plays and finally closing out on shooters. They don't just lead emotionally, the lead with their play and their effort. They deserve all the adulation they received from the Orange fans in Chicago.

And speaking of adoring fans, they had a pretty good party near campus, 500 kids, at least, turning up on Walnut.

But that wasn't all they were celebrating.

The Syracuse Orange women's basketball team also made the Final Four. Suffering no letdown after their big upset of #1-seed South Carolina, pounding the Tennessee Lady Vols, who while good, ain't what they used to be.

Alexis Peterson had another great game, this time scoring 29 points to go along with 6 assists on 11-20 shooting (3 of 4 from deep).

And always bringing the emotion and energy we have come to expect from her.

And of course, keeping true my adage about the women's tournament: win or lose, everyone on both teams cries after the game.

And then leading the team in a rousing rendition of "what up squad?"

The other big star was Brianna Butler who had been in a shooting slump until she nailed 4 of 10 3-pointers against South Carolina and then 6 of 15 against Tennessee, including 2 in 30 seconds in the 4th quarter that turned a 4-point lead into a 10-point lead from which the Orange never looked back.

They're going to need all the 3s from Butler, Peterson, Maggie Morrison and everyone else to have any prayer against UConn in the National Championship game. But the Orange do have a winnable game coming up against Washington, another surprise regional winner, coming from the 7 seed to knock off Stanford (which had vanquished Notre Dame) to earn its spot in the Final Four.

These two teams met in a preseason tournament and the Orange won by 4, but had a much bigger lead before holding on.

But that's an issue for another time, for tonight we will celebrate and try to hold on to the feeling of the best day in the history of Syracuse sports. The day the men's and women's teams overcame great odds and tough opponents to make it to the Final Four.

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