The Syracuse Orange are going to the Sweet 16. And there is only one appropriate follow-up question to that statement: How?
How did a team that probably shouldn’t even be in the NCAA tournament knock off a national title contender in Michigan State?
How did 11th-seeded Syracuse beat the third-seeded Spartans, 55-53, despite taking 42 shots to Michigan State’s 66?
How did a thin roster with only three legitimate scorers stave off foul trouble and 29 opponent offensive rebounds to beat one of the deepest, biggest and strongest teams in the field? How did it do so with only one made 3-pointer, and with a Division III transfer who had played just 11 minutes all season on the court for the final six against Sparty?
The upset was inexplicable. And yet as the Spartans threw up brick after brick, and as visions of past Syracuse tournament runs danced into the minds of the thousands of Michigan State fans in Detroit, it almost seemed inevitable.
Of course the “last team in” has won three games in five days. Of course Jim Boeheim is still confounding opponents with his famous zone, despite those opponents having thousands of hours of film on it. Of course the Orange made just enough shots to pull off the victory.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 18, 2018
Of course they’ll be playing next week in Omaha. And of course they’ll be playing against Duke.
The game’s pendulum swung back and forth all afternoon, with neither team ever leading by more than six. Syracuse’s offense was largely a mess, as it has been for most of the season. But it got to the line 31 times for 24 points. Its 31 points from the field might have set the sport of basketball back decades, but it was enough to beat the Spartans.
They were enough to beat the Spartans mostly because Cassius Winston, Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid combined to go 8-for-37 from beyond the arc. The Spartans shot 41 percent from deep on the season. They missed countless open looks Sunday, and missed their season average by almost 20 percentage points. They shot a gruesome 25.8 percent from the floor – 17-for-66. Yuck.
And yet they still had a chance to win. They led 48-43 on Winston’s jumper with 5:43 remaining. Then they didn’t make a field goal the rest of the game. Syracuse took the lead from the free throw line with 4:23 left and never relinquished it.
A frantic final minute, replete with turnovers, jump balls and reviews, gave Michigan State several opportunities to put 39 ugly minutes behind it. But Boeheim, without hesitation, instructed his team to foul up three, and his team executed perfectly.
First the Orange put McQuaid on the line up three with seven seconds to play. McQuaid made both free throws, but Tyus Battle matched him at the other end.
Up three again, Syracuse fouled with less than five seconds left. Winston made two more to cut the lead back to one, but Michigan State’s next foul of Syracuse came with just 2.4 seconds left. That didn’t give the Spartans enough time to get off a good look at the other end. And they fell, remarkably, to the Orange.
They fell, agonizingly but weirdly predictably, to Boeheim, the master of March.
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