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Final Four Memories

1998 NCAA Men's Tournament

  Syracuse's Defense Tops 'Dogs, 77-69

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 31, 1996

The Syracuse Orangemen, unranked in the preseason, have built a season around a search for respect. Every time they win, it seems they face new doubters. Every time they prove themselves, they seem to be asked to do it again.

So tonight, the Orangemen took the court against Mississippi State in an NCAA men's basketball tournament national semifinal with knitted brows and focused eyes. With a 2-3 zone defense that confused the Bulldogs and all-American senior forward John Wallace scoring a game-high 21 points, the Orangmen beat the Bulldogs, 77-69, at Continental Airlines Arena.

In doing so, they sent another call to the nation that they are the real deal. As the game wound down, junior forward Jason Cipolla walked to the side of the court and picked up a telephone.

"I just picked up the phone and said, I'm rolling to the championship,' " said Cipolla, whose team advanced to Monday night's final against Kentucky, an 81-74 winner over Massachusetts.

Moments after the game, Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim also was sending out the word. He was on a cellular phone, talking to a Philadelphia-based radio talk show host who had been such a non-believer that he said he would walk from Philadelphia to Syracuse, N.Y., if the Orangemen reached the Final Four.

"We really don't listen to the naysayers," said Syracuse center Otis Hill, who scored 15 points. "But we do get mad when they call us the underdogs because we feel we are as good as any team in the country."

The Orangemen (29-8) proved they were better than the Bulldogs (26-8). Syracuse's zone baffled Mississippi State, which committed 21 turnovers. Bulldogs point guard Marcus Bullard committed nine turnovers, while his Syracuse counterpart, senior Lazarus Sims, committed none. As a team, the Orangemen committed just five.

"Turnovers were the key to the game," Bulldogs Coach Richard Williams said. "We turned the ball over too many times to win the game."

Mississippi State also had trouble getting the ball inside to 6-foot-11 junior center Erick Dampier, who is contemplating declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft. He was held to 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting, as Syracuse's zone limited his opportunities. The 6-8 Hill banged Dampier relentlessly, and Dampier's teammates simply did not look to pass to him consistently.

"Every time I touched the ball, they had two or three defenders on me," Dampier said.

"Their zone is the best we've ever seen," said Williams, whose team doesn't face many zone defenses in the Southeastern Conference. "They play a zone with big, athletic people."

The Bulldogs started out well, making four three-pointers -- including two by guard Darryl Wilson, who scored a team-high 20 points -- in the first six minutes and taking an 18-10 lead. But both coaches felt Mississippi State fell into a trap.

"Sometimes, a team making shots against a zone is the best thing that can happen to you," Boeheim said. "When they make a few shots, they think it's going to be easy, and sometimes they take more threes than a team likes to take."

The Bulldogs, with their outside game cooling, had trouble working the ball inside to Dampier, who was being bumped around by Hill. So Mississippi State fed forward Russell Walters instead. He made three consecutive baskets, and point guard Marcus Bullard followed with a three-pointer to put the Bulldogs up 29-22.

The Orangemen extended their zone farther from the basket to cut off the three-point shot, and they rallied. Hill scored all 15 of his points in the first half, as Syracuse tied the game at 36 by halftime.

"I talked to Coach and John about it before the game, and they told me to go right at :Dampier:," Hill said. "I took it to him. This is no time to be nervous or scared."

Bullard committed five turnovers in the first half, and he continued to have problems in the second. He dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds on one series and threw the ball away on another.

The second of those turnovers resulted in a fast-break layup by Cipolla, one of Syracuse's heroes in its overtime victory last week against Georgia. The Orangemen scored the next four points, including another basket off a turnover by Bullard, and took a 50-44 lead.

Syracuse increased the margin to 56-48, but Mississippi State rallied on a tip-in by Dampier and a three-pointer by Wilson. The Bulldogs had switched to a zone defense, which they rarely use, and Boeheim called a timeout.

The Orangemen then met the zone with a three-pointer by forward Todd Burgan (19 points) and a jumper from the foul line by Wallace that made it 61-53. Bulldogs forward Jones made two free throws, and Mississippi State went back to a man-to-man defense. Dampier made a steal and passed to Bullard, but Bullard, trying to throw a long pass, threw the ball to Cipolla.

Having made another poor decision, Bullard clenched his teeth and shook his head. Cipolla then nailed a three-pointer for 64-55 with 3:57 left, and the Orangemen made 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch.

When the game ended, Sims heaved the ball into the crowd of Syracuse supporters, which included Derrick Coleman, who had been a freshman on the 1987 Syracuse team that lost to Indiana in the national final.

That team was highly regarded, but this season's squad won the West Region after having the Big East's fourth-best conference record and being only a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"We weren't expected to be here," Sims said. "Some people predicted us to go out in the first round."

The Orangemen almost surely will be the underdogs again Monday night against the Wildcats.

"It seems like we've been the underdogs the whole tournament," Wallace said. "But that has no effect on us. We don't care about that. . . . We don't care about the point spread or who thinks we're not going to win. We think we're going to win, that's all that matters."

One more victory, and this team will get all the respect it wants.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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