CHAPEL HILL, N.C., MARCH 19 -- Driven by what guard Carlton Owens called "a mission," Rhode Island upset last year's NCAA tournament runner-up Syracuse, 97-94, today in the second round of the NCAA East regional using a seldom-seen offensive weapon.
The Rams combined the traditional outside game of Owens and backcourt mate Tom Garrick with inside play of sophomore reserve Kenny Green to advance to a Thursday night game against Duke in the regional semifinals at East Rutherford, N.J. Duke eliminated Southern Methodist, 94-79, behind Kevin Strickland's 31 points.
Rhode Island's victory is particularly significant because it marks the Atlantic 10 conference's first trip to the round of 16 since the conference added two teams and changed its name from the Eastern Eight for the 1982-83 season.
The victory was especially sweet for the Rams (28-6) because Syracuse was the Big East Conference champion. The Atlantic 10 has never tried to hide its inferiority complex with regard to the Big East. This game was about respect.
"This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to the Rhode Island basketball program," Coach Tom Penders said. "Beating a great team like Syracuse is a big boost for us and our conference."
Garrick scored 28 points and Green had 16 of his 23 in the second half when Penders changed his strategy. Owens scored 18 points for the Rams. After the game, Garrick stood at courtside, looking toward his blind father, Tom Garrick Sr., who had a broad smile on his face. The elder Garrick has been blind since World War II, but he attends games and two of his eight children sit on either side of him, providing the play by play.
He heard a lot to be happy about.
Guards Garrick and Owens had scored 29 first-half points to stake the Rams to a 56-49 halftime lead, but Penders was forced to abandon the long-range attack shortly thereafter.
Syracuse's Rony Seikaly hit three consecutive layups to pull the Orangemen within 68-63 with 14:34 to play. At that point, Penders called for the ball to go into Green, who immediately attacked the basket and Syracuse's senior center.
"They were making a run at us and we were losing momentum so we made a decision to isolate Green inside," Penders said. "We felt he could get their big people into foul trouble."
But Green missed three consecutive shots with Seikaly shadowing him and the Orangemen pulled to within 72-71 with 11:45 to go. Then the tactic began to produce. Green scored five straight points, and Syracuse's Derrick Coleman (16 points) picked up his third and fourth fouls. And at the 7:31 mark, Seikaly was whistled for his fourth.
"I was getting good baseline position and taking it to the hole and they had to foul me," Green said of Seikaly and Coleman.
Said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim: "I thought the key to the game was that we weren't able to control Green inside." As a result, Boeheim's two biggest Orangemen, who scored 43 relatively easy points between them in the game, including a team-high 27 by Seikaly, were rendered ineffective while the game was on the line.
"It's difficult to play defense when you don't know how it's going to be called," said Seikaly, who finished the game with four fouls. "We tried to play physical, and we got our whole front line in foul trouble."
Green held off Syracuse with free throws until Garrick took the reins again. With Rhode Island up, 86-85, the senior guard hit a jumper from the left side and then stole a pass, was fouled and converted two free throws for a 90-85 lead with 2:57 left.
Syracuse (26-9) rallied by fouling and getting three-pointers from Earl Duncan and Matt Roe. It was Roe's three-pointer that brought Syracuse to within three with 13 seconds left. After Garrick missed a free throw, Duncan's shot to tie rimmed out as the crowd of 20,505 felt their hearts skip a beat.
"We proved to the nation that we are a good team," Owens said. "We weren't afraid of Syracuse. We attacked them and put on quite a show."
Duke displayed quite a performance in the late game.
The East regional's second seed used its suffocating defense to throw a net over SMU's slick guard Kato Armstrong. According to plan, the Blue Devils offense fed off its defensive intensity and trounced the Mustangs.
Armstrong was the latest challenge posed to Duke's defensive standout Billy King. The senior caused Armstrong to make only six of 22 shots from the field.
"King did a good job on Kato, but their entire defense caused us problems," SMU Coach Dave Bliss said.
While King occupied Armstrong, the Blue Devils offense attacked the soft core of the Mustangs defense. SMU (28-7) concentrated on ACC player of the year Danny Ferry and held him to 12 points. But the overplay on Ferry left too many holes for the fine passer.
"They collapsed on Danny and that gave me plenty of room to operate on the inside," said Robert Brickey, who scored 17. When Ferry cleared the ball back outside he usually hit Strickland, whose 31 points were a season high.
As if Brickey and Strickland weren't enough, Duke also received a strong effort from its reserves. Alaa Abdelnaby, who scored 13 points, and Phil Henderson were both key players in the Blue Devils' 21-7 run that concluded the half and broke the Mustangs' spirits.
"Our bench did a terrific job out there," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.