One last time, Verizon Center will host what amounts to a Big East basketball game Saturday night, featuring two teams that will no longer be conference foes come next season.
It will be that way Saturday because fourth-seeded Syracuse summarily dismantled top-seeded Indiana in Thursday night’s East Region semifinal, a 61-50 decision that put the Orange in the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight for the second straight year.
The result came a few hours after Marquette destroyed Miami in the earlier semifinal, and neither was expected. Both were emphatic. And it will all lead to a game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, their second meeting of the year following Marquette’s 74-71 victory in Milwaukee on Feb. 25
To get there, the Orange needed a suffocating defensive effort as a team and a sterling offensive output from one of its best players. Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams scored 24 points, fronted the Orange’s infuriating zone defense, came up with five rebounds and four steals — and outplayed Victor Oladipo, Indiana’s heralded junior.
“This was the best he’s played all year,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. “He was tremendous tonight. He was the difference in the game offensively.”
And at least in part because of that, Oladipo’s return to the Washington area was short. The Upper Marlboro native led the Hoosiers with 16 points, but in the middle of that stifling zone he managed only six shot attempts, a good indication that Syracuse won by forcing other Indiana options to determine the result. Oladipo shot 5 of 6, the rest of the Hoosiers 11 of 42.
The result: high-scoring Indiana’s lowest point total of the year and 19 turnovers, tying a season high.
“They were just long and active,” Oladipo said. “And we just didn’t take care of the ball like we should have.”
How thorough was this? Indiana led 3-2, and never again. Syracuse built an 18-point first-half lead and held Indiana to 22 points in the first 20 minutes, the Hoosiers’ lowest output in a single half all season. Even when Indiana cut its deficit to six in the second half, the Orange responded coolly, almost immediately pushing its lead to double digits again.
So this game couldn’t compare to the previous NCAA tournament matchup between these two schools, the 1987 national championship game that featured a talented Syracuse squad, led by forward Derrick Coleman, against Bob Knight, Steve Alford and the top-seeded Hoosiers. The image of Indiana’s Keith Smart pulling up and making a baseline jumper to provide a 74-73 victory is still used in NCAA highlight reels, and it was a topic of discussion in the days leading up to the matchup.
The difference: Knight has long since moved on, and Boeheim remains in his same chair. Moreover, Syracuse won the 2003 national championship – easing Boeheim’s burden – and the Hoosiers, though they have returned to the Final Four twice, haven’t won it all since.
For as much as Indiana Coach Tom Crean has accomplished in getting the Hoosiers back to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in back-to-back years, a run to the Final Four will have to wait. The Hoosiers’ offensive efficiency – third in the nation in scoring, third in three-point shooting percentage – figured to test Syracuse’s zone. But both Oladipo and center Cody Zeller struggled to find openings to take good shots.
“At first, they looked kind of confused,” Syracuse senior James Southerland said.
So the Orange’s lead grew quickly as Indiana missed its first five shots, as it hit just 1 of 7 from three-point range in the first half, as it turned over the ball a dozen times before the break. The largest advantage was 29-11, and even with the Hoosiers scoring on their final five possessions of the half, they only had 22 points in the first 20 minutes. At halftime, Syracuse led 34-22. What could go wrong?
Orange fans knew all too well. In the championship game of the Big East tournament less than two weeks earlier, Syracuse built a 16-point lead against Louisville – and somehow lost by 17. Certainly, the halftime conversation among those wearing orange at Verizon Center – Coleman among them – contained painful reminiscences of that game.
So, naturally, as soon as the teams took the court after halftime, here it came. Indiana scored on its first three possessions following the break, the last an up-and-under move from Oladipo that forced Boeheim to call a timeout less than 90 seconds in. Four minutes later, when Oladipo hit a three-pointer from the top of the key, Syracuse’s advantage was just 38-32. The Hoosiers’ corner of the building rose, all in red. The fans clad in orange sank into their seats.
“But we couldn’t get over the hump,” Crean said.
Indeed, Boeheim’s bunch rose instead. Carter-Williams’s drive answered Oladipo’s three-pointer on the next possession, and Indiana never got that close again.
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Orange celebrated, but not emphatically. One more game here this weekend – a grind of a Big East game – awaits.
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Photos: Scenes from the tournament