Jim Boeheim took the Syracuse basketball coaching job in 1976. When he did, the team had tasted some slight success. A couple of conference-winning years, and a Final Four appearance but not much more than that. After the Hall of Fame coach took over, the wins started to roll in. Boeheim wasn’t the only reason though. The talent on the Orange rosters began to grow each year. After Dave Bing was the talk of the town in the early 60s, SU didn’t have NBA-caliber talent until 1974 when Marty Byrnes showed up. That wasn’t the story in the 80s.
#3: Syracuse vs. Villanova March 7, 1981
In the 1980-81 campaign, SU sported some serious talent. Danny Schayes and Leo Rautins, who were both NBA-bound, led the squad to 15 wins heading into the Big East Tournament. The Orange struggled in their tough conference that season, just 6-8 against Big East opponents, but you wouldn’t have guessed it by the way they played. Their grit and unwillingness to give up were unmatched by any other team. In the first round, Syracuse skated past St. Johns, 71-66, and with that momentum, made quick work of Georgetown, 67-53 in the next round. That brought Boeheim’s squad to the Finals of the Big East Tournament against Villanova. It’s important to keep in mind that today the same tournament is held in Madison Square Garden, arguably the most historic arena in sports, but before then it didn’t have a permanent home. In 1981 the tournament was held in the Carrier Dome, effectively making every contest a home game for SU. So with their home crowd behind them and two wins under the belt, the Orange looked to the Wildcats. Nova had quite the squad that season, John Pinone, Stewart Granger, and Alex Bradley were the scary faces on that team. There was no way around it, Syracuse would have its hands full in this matchup.
On gameday, the newly built Carrier Dome was packed to the gills. 15,213 fans were in attendance. The orange faithful showed up in a big way, and it seemed that the Orange needed every inch of that faith to get through this game. It was tight the entire way through. Regulation ended in a tie, so did the first overtime, and the second. Neither team was willing to give an inch in the fight for Big East glory. With three seconds left in the game’s third overtime period, Leo Rautins converted a heroic tip-in to break an 80-all tie, and big man Danny Schayes sank a clutch free throw to make it the Orange lead three. 83-80 was the final score, Syracuse were crowned champions, and Rautins was given the Tournament MVP award. Back then, a conference tournament victory wasn’t enough for an NCAA tournament birth. Boeheim was quoted after the game, “Both teams deserve a place in the N.C.A.A. tournament. And Boston College does, too.” He was right, and soon that changed.