No. 1 seed Syracuse has largely been unfazed by a wave of off-court issues that threatened to derail its season on several occasions, but the popular point of view this week was that the Orange were vulnerable after center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for the entire NCAA tournament.
But on Saturday Syracuse did its best to quiet the doubters, surging past No. 8 seed Kansas State in the second half en route to a 75-59 victory in an East region round-of-32 game. The win puts the Orange back in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years.
Point guard Scoop Jardine was the catalyst, helping Syracuse break open a one-point game after halftime. The senior finished with 16 points, eight assists and four rebounds, while super-sub Dion Waiters added 18 points, part of a 33-0 advantage the Orange had in bench points.
The win was Coach Jim Boeheim’s 47th career NCAA tournament victory, putting him in a tie for fifth-place all-time with former UCLA Coach John Wooden.
Led by Jardine, Syracuse went on an 11-2 run at the start of the second half to push its lead into double digits, and when forward James Southerland (15 points) hit a three-pointer with just more than nine minutes remaining, the Orange took a 55-42 lead and never looked back.
Kansas State got 14 points and 17 rebounds from Jordan Henriquez, and senior Rodney McGruder scored 17 points despite suffering an ankle injury in the first half. But after a dominating performance on the offensive glass before halftime, the Wildcats wore down in the latter stages of the game, hitting just four of their 17 three-point attempts against the Orange’s 2-3 zone.
That was partly due to some unexpected news less than an hour before tip-off. While Syracuse was prepared to play without Melo, Kansas State announced Saturday morning that Washington native Jamar Samuels, the team’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, would not play because of his own eligibility issues.
Nonetheless, the Wildcats jumped out to an early 9-2 lead. But Syracuse responded with a 19-2 run once Waiters entered the game. As he’s done all season, the sophomore came off the bench and provided the Orange with a dynamic spark, scoring nine quick points as Syracuse regained its swagger after having more trouble than expected with No. 16 seed UNC Asheville on Thursday in the round of 64.
Kansas State started out 3 of 5 from the field but missed 15 of its next 17 shots and lost McGruder for a time because of an ankle injury. Still, the Wildcats managed to stay close, with Henriquez’s length wreaking havoc on a Syracuse front line that sorely missed Melo in the first half.
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