SOUTH BEND, IND., FEB. 9 -- With 3:01 left to go in the Syracuse-Notre Dame basketball game today, Syracuse forward Dave Johnson began laughing and talking back to the Notre Dame student who had been heckling him unmercifully throughout the game.
It was the nervous laughter of relief and it was almost premature. Over the next three minutes, what was then a six-point Syracuse lead was slashed to one. But in the end, the seventh-ranked Orangemen (20-3), who trailed during most of the game, hung on for a 70-69 win that climaxed an extraordinarily emotional, topsy-turvy 36 hours for the team and its coach, Jim Boeheim.
Johnson was one of seven Syracuse players -- including three other starters -- who were briefly suspended by the university Friday as part of a university investigation into allegations of NCAA rules violations. But a few hours later, the players were reinstated by the NCAA, which announced that it was satisfied with Syracuse's handling so far of what has been described as minor infractions of NCAA rules.
The seven suspended players, who also included national player of the year contender Billy Owens, starting center LeRon Ellis and starting guard Michael Edwards, arrived here at 10:30 Friday night, several hours after Boeheim and the rest of the team.
"They were a little bit scared; they weren't sure what was going to happen," said Syracuse's associate sports information director, Bill Strickland, of the late arrivals.
After the game, the players insisted that the suspensions and the continuing investigation were not responsible for their sluggish play for most of the game. They also did not want to talk about it.
"I've got no comment," said Johnson when asked about the heckling, which centered on Syracuse's announcement this week that he had been placed on university probation because of a sexual relationship he had with a 14-year-old girl two years ago.
However, Owens, who scored 31 points to lead his team to the narrow victory, described the alleged NCAA violations as "petty."
"The stuff was petty -- pickup games, something like that," he said. "It was just petty and we tried not to worry about it. We let the people who take care of it take care of it."
Boeheim said he was relieved to get through "a tough game" during which the Orangemen "looked the most out of sync" they have all year.
He would not speculate on the impact of the brief suspensions and late arrivals here Friday, but said the investigation has put his players in "a very difficult situation."
"It's very scary for a player during the season," he said. "We have to adjust to it as best we can."
Asked what he had told his players about dealing with the situation, Boeheim sighed and said, "Well, they've been dealing with it the whole season."
Referring to the heckling of Johnson, Boeheim added, "I didn't notice much Catholic charity from the Notre Dame student body. I was a little disappointed."
Although Boeheim said he was always confident that several of the suspended players would be allowed to play today, he had a backup plan involving the emergency use of three Syracuse football players who were prepared to fly to South Bend Friday night if the suspensions were not lifted. He identified the three as "a couple of big guys" and quarterback Marvin Graves, who starred in football and basketball at Carroll High School in Washington.
"Marvin packed his bags and was there at 7 in the morning" ready to go, Boeheim said. He added that he particularly appreciated Syracuse football coach Paul Pasqualoni's willingness to risk injury to Graves in the service of the school's basketball program.
"It's hard to let your quarterback get out there," he said.
For a while, it looked as if Graves and the linemen might still be needed. Although Owens had 12 points at halftime, his teammates struggled through the first 20 minutes as if half the team were still back in Syracuse. The three other suspended starters -- Johnson, Ellis and Edwards -- had seven points among them, including only three of eight free throws.
Before the game, Strickland said the suspended players seemed "ready to play," but that was not apparent until about five minutes to go in the game when first Johnson and then Owens sank three point baskets, setting off a run that ended with a technical foul on Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps and a 67-61 Syracuse lead.
Still, it was not over until Owens made the winning basket -- a twisting, behind the head basket after a missed Syracuse shot -- and Ellis preserved the win by stripping Notre Dame guard Daimon Sweet of the ball with less than five seconds to play.