JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Maybe the Big East was overrated.
It would be hard to argue against that after the opening day of the NCAA tournament.
Acie Law scored 23 points, including a dozen in the final 2:25, and helped 12th-seeded Texas A&M upset fifth-seeded Syracuse 66-58 Thursday night in the Atlanta Regional.
It was the third loss in as many games for the new expanded Big East, which sent a record eight teams into the field of 65. Wichita State pounded Seton Hall 86-66 in Greensboro, N.C., and Marquette was knocked off by Alabama, 90-85 in San Diego earlier in the day.
It also ended an improbable run for the Orange and senior Gerry McNamara. The star guard carried Syracuse through the Big East tournament last weekend and helped the team secure an automatic berth in the NCAA field. Before the conference tournament, the Orange seemed destined to be left out of the NCAAs.
But the Aggies (22-8) had better fortune in this one—thanks to Law.
The left-hander scored 14 points in the final eight minutes, almost single-handedly delivering Texas A&M into the second round. He finished 7-of-17 from the field, had seven rebounds and five assists and gave the Aggies their first NCAA tournament victory since 1980.
“I don’t think a whole lot of people around the country think we’re a powerhouse program, so if we win a couple of games, it’s going to surprise some people,” guard Chris Walker. “We enjoy that. We enjoy opening people’s eyes doing things that they didn’t expect us to so. I think that’s what it’s all about.”
In the tourney for the first time since 1987, A&M advanced to face fourth-seeded LSU on Saturday and became yet another No. 12 seed to take out a fifth seed in the first round. It’s happened at least once every year since 1989, and twice on Thursday. No. 12 Montana upset Nevada earlier in the day.
McNamara was held to two points—tying his career low—and the Texas A&M section was chanting “overrated, overrated” at him on several occasions.
He was 0-for-6 from the field and missed all five shot from behind the 3-point line.
“I feel great about it,” McNamara said sarcastically while keeping his head down during postgame interviews. “My last game that we lost, probably because of me.”
McNamara appeared injured during the game, rubbing his leg during breaks, but he refused to use it as an excuse.
“I’m all right,” he said.
Coach Jim Boeheim later said McNamara hadn’t been able to practice all week, but refused to disclose the injury. The guard had been nursing a groin injury during the Big East tournament.
“I’m not going to make excuses. He’s not going to make excuses,” Boeheim said. “If you watch the game, you know why he wasn’t in the game. Gerry could not make plays tonight. If anything, I played him too much.”
Boeheim went into a tirade last week defending McNamara, who was picked the conference’s “most overrated” player by unidentified Big East assistants in a Syracuse area newspaper, and also was called overrated by a columnist from the school newspaper.
He responded by hitting big shot after big shot in an MVP performance, leading the Orange to a Big East tournament title.
But he left that magic in Madison Square Garden.
McNamara was scoreless most of first half against A&M, until he sank two free throws with 36 seconds remaining. But he didn’t score again.
“We kind of got under their skin by the end of the game,” Law said. “You could see the frustration.”
Terrence Roberts led the Orange (21-12) with 16 points.
Syracuse trailed by 11 early in the second half, but whittled the lead down to 45-41 with 8:13 remaining. Then Law took over.
He had a putback and two free throws to push the lead back to eight, then later scored 10 consecutive points for the Aggies. He had two driving layups, a transition basket and sank four free throws. He added two more free throws— finishing 8-for-8 from the charity stripe—with 15 seconds to play.
Joseph Jones was the only other A&M player in double figures. He had 12 points and seven rebounds.
“We came out and made a bunch of shots early and got us a little confidence,” Aggies coach Billy Gillispie. “I don’t know how we do it. We just keep on trying hard.”