Most assumed top-seeded Syracuse was more vulnerable to an upset after center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for the entire NCAA tournament this week, but the Orange faithful got a scare much earlier than expected Thursday afternoon.
Syracuse needed a second-half rally to defeat UNC Asheville, 72-65, in an East Region round-of-64 game and avoided becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed. The Orange played from behind much of the afternoon, but its size advantage — even without Melo — proved to be too much for the plucky Bulldogs.
Though Syracuse finished 5 of 23 from three-point range, the Orange dominated inside with 15 offensive rebounds. Reserve James Southerland led Syracuse with 15 points, including a couple of clutch three-pointers as UNC Asheville tried to mount a charge after halftime.
UNC Asheville got four three-pointers and 18 points from guard J.P. Primm, but the Bulldogs went more than five minutes without a field goal after tying the score at 54 with 6:42 remaining in the game.
Still, Syracuse never could pull away from UNC Asheville, which became the first No. 16 seed since Valparaiso in 2000 to lose by single digits to a No. 1 seed.
When Kris Joseph hit two free throws to give the Orange their first lead of the second half, the Bulldogs’ Jeremy Atkinson responded with a basket on the other end.
After Melo’s replacement, freshman Rakeem Christmas, followed up a three-pointer by Southerland with a jumper of his own to give Syracuse a four-point lead, UNC Asheville soon tied the score again.
The Bulldogs mustered one last charge when it cut the deficit to 64-61 after Jaron Lane (16 points) hit a three-pointer with 1:07 remaining. But Syracuse’s Brandon Triche got a lay-up with 44 seconds left and point guard Scoop Jardine got the benefit of the doubt from the referees when he was fouled by a UNC Asheville player while fumbling the ball out of bounds with 34 seconds left on the clock. He then made two free throws to ice the victory.
The Orange got 12 points from guard Dion Waiters in the first half but entered halftime trailing 34-30 after shooting 36.1 percent. Early on in the second half, it seemed UNC Asheville’s momentum had carried over when guard Jeremy Atkinson scored five-straight points to extend the Bulldogs lead to six.
Syracuse stormed back, and took the lead with 15 minutes remaining following two consecutive lay-ins by guard Scoop Jardine. But Primm nailed a three-pointer proving once and for all that the Bulldogs would not go down quietly.
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