Well-tested Syracuse survives Wisconsin despite the Badgers playing a near-flawless game

BOSTON – There was a moment in Syracuse’s postgame news conference, the team still reveling in a high-level, hard-fought 64-63 victory over Wisconsin in the East Region semifinals, when Orange guard Scoop Jardine was asked about dealing with some of the “ups and downs” of the season.

Jardine looked incredulous. Jim Boeheim, sitting next to him, expressed shock.

“Low points?” Boeheim mumbled. “We’re 34-2.”

So that early season deal where a long-time assistant was fired after molestation accusations were leveled against him? Or when two of the accusers sued Boeheim for defamation? Or maybe the late-season public revelation of an NCAA investigation into the school’s non-adherence to its drug-testing policy? Or the suspension of starting center Fab Melo on the eve of the NCAA tournament? Or the near-upset at the hands of No. 16 UNC Asheville last week? Or …

“We really haven’t had downs,” Jardine said. “Like Coach said, there haven’t been too many lows.”

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Syracuse was supposed to be dead and buried half a dozen times this season. The Orange aren’t just still standing, it just delivered a show of force against a Wisconsin team that played a brilliant game, including hitting 14 three-pointers, committing just six turnovers and fighting until the last second.

“I think the best game anybody has ever played against us and didn’t beat us,” Boeheim said.

For perspective’s sake, that’s 890 victories in Boeheim’s 36 seasons as coach and 52 more when he was a Syracuse player in the early 1960s. Nearly 1,000 games and Syracuse never has beaten a team that played better than Wisconsin?

“I’m sure there’s contenders, but 14 threes? I don’t think anybody has ever made 14 threes against us and we beat them,” he said. “They’re a very, very good defensive team. … It’s hard to beat a team that made 14 threes. It’s easy to get rattled in a situation like that.”

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Sure, but when do these Orange ever get rattled? There isn’t an off-court scandal that can make Syracuse blink at this point. There may not be an on-court one, either.

Boeheim said losing Melo affected Syracuse twice. In the regular season, the 7-footer sat for three games and the Orange lost to Notre Dame in the first one. Then came the NCAA tourney opener against UNCA, when the ’Cuse flirted with becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed.

But it didn’t. Now the Orange is off to the Elite Eight on Saturday, where the Ohio State awaits.

“I think we have made that adjustment,” Boeheim said of playing without Melo.

Have they ever. Wisconsin couldn’t have dreamed up a better game plan. The Badgers controlled the tempo. They were resilient. They defended. And they shot lights out against Syracuse’s zone.

“I didn’t think they could play like this,” Boeheim said.

Only at no point did the ’Cuse crumble. The Orange calmly kept answering and kept extending the zone out a bit until the Badgers couldn’t hit a deep ball in the final seven minutes. Somehow, Syracuse managed to control the game throughout.

Wisconsin would’ve beaten almost anyone else in this tournament Thursday night. This wasn’t anybody, though. This was the most battle-tested club alive. One member of the Syracuse program said they’d been getting pummeled every day for months. So much so, nothing even feels like a low point anymore.

The off-court stuff never had a big impact on the players, who weren’t involved and, being young men, hardly dwell on it. Melo’s loss was different. Syracuse could’ve used him against Wisconsin, and the Orange certainly could use him the rest of the way.

When news broke that Melo was ineligible, Boeheim gathered the team and didn’t sugar-coat anything.

“He was pissed off,” guard Brandon Triche said. “[Fab was] one of our biggest, most important players on the team.”

The anger lasted only a few seconds. Just as the disappointment was about to set in, Boeheim pounded home the same message he had all season. He wasn’t going to let the loss snowball.

“He just said, ‘We can do it without him; we have enough pieces,’ ” Triche said.

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So far Syracuse has. Maybe the loss of the big guy comes back to haunt the Orange. Maybe it doesn’t. Syracuse just played a brilliant game, avoiding a loss to a team that also played a brilliant game.

“We played as well as we can play,” Boeheim said. “That’s why we won the game.”

Low points? No, not with this crew. Whatever hardships they’ll admit are fleeting. Syracuse is 34-2 and the Orange knows everyone thinks it should’ve been knocked down and out long ago.

It’s not so much fuel for them as amusement at this point.

“We’re just happy to not prove them wrong,” Triche said. “but prove us right.”

Forty more minutes and Syracuse can prove it in New Orleans.

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