Atlanta, Georgia — Seat cushions flew through the air like pizza boxes off the front porch of a frat on the Hill. Thousands of Syracuse fans stood staring in hollow disbelief. Hail to the Victor blared from the Michigan band. That’s the way it ended here inside the Georgia Dome?
In a bizarre ending to a thrilling run through March, the final few frantic seconds ticked away and SU’s last two possessions came up empty. Thanks to the Wolverines missed free throws, the Orange clawed back from a double-digit second half deficit to trail by just a bucket with :30 to play. But a drive to the basket by Brandon Triche was called a charge, which was proven to be a terrible call by the replays as the defender slid under after Triche already had left his feet. Down three in the waning seconds, SU once again drove to the hoop but it bounced away and the Wolverines snatched the win.
Why didn’t Triche kick out to a shooter? Why did Syracuse play so sluggishly for so much of the game? And what happened to Michael Carter-Williams and James Southerland in their final games as Orange? MCW was out of sorts all night, fouling out with a putrid stat line of 2 points, 2 assists, 5 turnovers. Big Game James was anything but, going 2-9 from the field and finishing with just 5 points – both buckets happening in the final minutes.
For much of the night Syracuse played its smallest game on the biggest stage. If the Orange weren’t wearing their usual road jerseys, you’d swear it was a different team than the one that locked down on opponents all month. Instead of squeezing Michigan like it had done to seven foes over the course of the postseason, SU played a lethargic 35 minutes and let the Wolverines be the aggressor.
Thank goodness for C.J. Fair who was the only player to show up for Syracuse. He finished with 22 points, 6 rebounds and a boat load of hustle plays. The Fulton County Sheriff’s Department might want to put out an alert for the rest of the squad who went missing in Atlanta. Syracuse put on the late surge to cut into the lead, but the Wolverines pretty much controlled this game from the tip.
For an Orange team that seemed so energized since its MSG magic a month ago, there was no more pixie dust left in the magic wand. The 2-3 zone had been so thoroughly perplexing for four games in the NCAA tourney was ridded with bullet holes by a solid shooting Michigan team. From early on the Wolverines weren’t afraid of bombing from downtown, and when a couple of 30-footers dropped you could feel the heart sink of Orange Nation here at the Georgia Dome.
Michigan accomplished something Montana, Indiana, Marquette and Cal couldn’t: hit the deep ball. SU actually ended up shooting better from the field than the Wolverines, but the difference was from behind the arc where Michigan went 8-24. While Tom Crean seemed completely bamboozled by the zone despite having seen it for a decade in the Big East, John Beilein knew what was coming. The other JB had experienced plenty of the 2-3 while coaching West Virginia ’02-’07 and Michigan played like it. Interesting that Beilein had never beaten Boeheim. On this night his team played confident against the zone.
No matter the outcome, it was an energizing run to a fourth Final Four for Boeheim. From where we sat in late February, heading to MSG without any momentum at all, to flooding the streets of Atlanta with Orange, who could’ve seen that coming? The zone was historically good, and it was enough to carry a pedestrian offense through three weekends. But for SU’s most important players to come up so small at the end was exasperating. MCW will be a lottery pick, but could obviously use plenty more seasoning on his game by staying at the college level. Southerland was at times this season instant offense, just add water and the three-ball. But he was spotty in March, at times dazzling, at times hiding. And for Triche it’s a painful way to end his career on the Hill.
Brandon had SU in his blood lines, he knew what it meant to suit up for the Orange and play in front of 30,000 inside a stuffy, peripatetic Carrier Dome on a Sunday against Georgetown. He told me on my CBS Sports Radio show after the Indiana win that he realized his legacy was on the line following the end of the regular season, and he was determined to rewrite the script. Credit Triche for wanting the ball in his hands in the final minute. But he’s left coming up short, which gut-wrenchingly summarizes his career at SU.
I kept asking my friends and SU colleagues if they liked this team. And it’s funny. Everyone liked the winning. Everyone liked the dance through March. And the vibe here in Atlanta this weekend was celebratory and exciting. SU fans mobbed the city, flying banners from hotel balconies, and drinking and cavorting into the night. But the personalities, and erratic play, and frustrating losses seemed to keep this SU team at an arm’s length for most fans. It was a hard squad to fully wrap your arms around, from the MCW theft to the uninspired losses to the Hoyas. And maybe that’s the best way to describe the ’12-’13 Orange. Fun at times. Brutal at times. Just like the loss tonight inside this Georgia Dome.