WASHINGTON — Jim Boeheim calls this year’s Syracuse team his best defensive group ever. Hard to argue, based on the suffocating performances that put the Orange in the Final Four.
Using its trapping, shot-challenging 2-3 zone to perfect effect for 40 minutes, No. 4-seeded Syracuse shut down No. 3 Marquette 55-39 in the East Regional final Saturday to earn Boeheim his first trip to the national semis since a freshman named Carmelo Anthony helped win the 2003 NCAA title.
“It’s a great thing,” Boeheim joked afterward. “We go once every 10 years.”
Fittingly, a matchup between schools from the soon-to-break-apart, rough-and-tumble Big East became quite a struggle on the offensive end. Syracuse (30-9) was led by senior forward James Southerland’s 16 points. Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-foot-6 guard who is out front in the zone, was named the regional’s top player after having 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists Saturday.
Marquette (26-9) hadn’t scored fewer than 47 points all season — and, indeed, put up 74 in a victory over Syracuse on Feb. 25. But this time, Marquette kept turning the ball over, seeing its shots blocked or just plain missing.
“They beat us from start to finish. We collectively tried everything we knew to try,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone.”
Much like what happened Thursday in the regional semifinals, when Syracuse knocked off top-seeded Indiana by limiting it to a season-low output, too.
“I don’t think we’ve played as good defensively as these last two games,” senior guard Brandon Triche said. “We held some good teams down.”
All told, Marquette made only 12 of 53 shots — 23 percent — and was 3 for 24 on 3-pointers. Vander Blue, who carried Marquette to the round of eight, was held to 14 points on 3-for-15 shooting. The Golden Eagles’ 39 points were a record low for a team in an NCAA tournament regional final since the shot clock was introduced in 1986.
“They cover ground really good. You’ve got to get the ball in the middle, you’ve got to play inside out, you’ve got to get to the free throw line and wear them down with the 3-pointer when you can,” Blue said. “They’re really good at what they do in that zone.”
In the national semifinals at Atlanta next week, Syracuse will face the winner of Sunday’s South Regional final between Florida and Michigan.
Last season, Syracuse fell a victory short of the Final Four, losing to Ohio State in the round of eight.
“We wanted to get over the hump,” Southerland said. “That’s what I told the guys: We’ve still got two more to go.”
The Big East is transforming radically before next season. Syracuse is heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference, while Marquette is one of seven basketball-centric schools departing the conference to form a new league that is taking the Big East name with it.
But talk about a last hurrah.
Not only is Syracuse on its way to the Final Four, but the league also could have a second representative because Louisville is in the Midwest Regional final Sunday against Duke.
In this very same building, exactly three weeks ago, Syracuse wrapped up its final Big East regular-season schedule with a bad-as-can-be performance in a lopsided loss to Georgetown, scoring 39 points — the Orange’s tiniest total in a half-century.
Thanking fans after Saturday’s victory, Boeheim said: “I’m sure some of you were here, three weeks ago today, when it didn’t turn out so good.”
That was Syracuse’s fourth loss in a span of five games, a stumbling way to head into tournament play. Since then, though, Boeheim’s team has won seven of eight games.
“When you bounce back like that, that says a lot about your kids, your team and your character,” Boeheim said. “This is a heck of a bounce back.”
And the secret to success? Defense, naturally.
“We got the right personnel for each key position,” C.J. Fair said. “We got big long guards, we got big long forwards that can cover ground and our centers do a good job holding down the inside.”
Syracuse really needed only one run on offense in the second half, making five shots in a row during a spurt that gave it a 41-28 lead with 9½ minutes left.
With President Barack Obama — a basketball enthusiast who picked Indiana to win the title — and NFL Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins sitting in the crowd, Syracuse harassed Marquette into missing 14 of its first 15 tries from beyond the 3-point arc.
Marquette started 1 for 10 overall on field-goal tries, with Blue’s 3-pointer about 1½ minutes in the only make. He celebrated as though it came at the end of the game, not the outset, punching the air and tapping defender Triche on the back while heading to the other end of the court.
After Blue’s 3, Marquette missed its next seven shots.
Davante Gardner ended that drought by scoring inside. Still, four of Marquette’s next five possessions ended with turnovers: Gardner couldn’t handle a teammate’s pass, and the ball bounced off his face; Blue was called for traveling; Fair drew a charge from Blue; Junior Cadougan lost control of his dribble on a wild foray into the lane with the shot clock expiring.
That was part of a stretch — disappointing for Marquette, delightful for Syracuse — in which the Golden Eagles went nearly 6½ minutes without a single field-goal attempt. Forget about putting the basketball through the net; Syracuse was so smothering, Marquette did not even manage to shoot.
That helped Syracuse build a 19-7 lead.
Enter Gardner, a 290-pound reserve forward.
He scored a career-high 26 points in Marquette’s February victory over Syracuse, and he went right to work Saturday.
A 7-minute gap between baskets for Marquette was snapped by Gardner, who grabbed the rebound of his own missed free throw and sank a jumper, beginning a bunch of highlights for him.
Another jumper was followed by a defensive rebound, then an assist on Chris Otule’s bucket. Gardner high-stepped back down the court, yelling and punching a fist, before chest-bumping Otule.
It was part of a run in which Marquette cut its deficit to 21-18 on yet another jumper in the lane by Gardner.
The thing is, the Golden Eagles can play defense, too — what Big East team can’t? — and the teams combined for four turnovers, two blocks and 3-for-16 shooting in the early minutes. For the first half, Marquette shot 27 percent — take away Gardner’s 4 for 5, and his teammates were under 15 percent — while Syracuse was at 36 percent.
Indeed, as Gardner almost single-handedly got his team back in the game with half of Marquette’s initial 18 points, Syracuse went through an 0-for-6 blip.
But Southerland hit a 3, off a pass and screen by Carter-Williams, to put the Orange ahead 24-18 at halftime.
After helping cut down the net to celebrate Saturday, Southerland was asked whether he thought this sort of thing was possible when his team was leaving the same arena on March 9 after losing meekly to Georgetown.
“We just did a good job of recovering from that,” Southerland explained, “and not sulking.”