On March 9, the Syracuse basketball team had walked off the Verizon Center court feeling humiliated, hearing the gleeful shrieks of Georgetown fans in their ears after the Hoyas had held them to an unthinkable 39 points in the Big East regular season finale.
Exactly three weeks later, the Orange players again found themselves staring up at the number 39 on the same scoreboard in the same building. Only this time, they had huge smiles on their faces and they were in no hurry to leave the court. This time, they hung around to cut down the nets and take them home as a souvenir of an NCAA tournament East Region final that they won with ease. The final score was 55-39, and it took a Davonte Gardner three-pointer in the final seconds for Marquette to get to that number.
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim earned his fourth trip to the Final Four, and this one may have been his most unlikely, especially given what his team went through right here on March 9, when Georgetown cut down the nets to celebrate its share of the Big East regular season title.
Syracuse and Boeheim will happily take these nets and let the Hoyas have the other ones. In fact, many of the Syracuse players — including Michael Carter-Williams, voted the East Region’s most outstanding player — said they believed what happened here three Saturdays ago against Hoyas led to what happened here during the last 48 hours.
“We had lost several games in a row [four of five, actually], but we never took it personally,” Carter-Williams said in his team’s euphoric locker room. “That one we did take personally. We were embarrassed. We heard all the Georgetown people saying ‘it’s over,’ and reminding us about closing Manley Field House all those years ago. It might have been the best thing that happened to us because it really got our attention. It hurt.
“Coach told us at practice the next day that it was our season and we can lay down and it will be over quickly in the first round or we can make a run at it.” He smiled. “We went from there.”
They went from there to the Big East championship game — following an overtime win over Georgetown in the semifinals — before losing to Louisville. Then they made their run: routing Montana and beating California in San Jose before coming here and dominating two very good basketball teams: top-seeded Indiana on Thursday and Marquette. In both games, they trailed only once: at 3-2.
“Our zone was as active in these two games as it’s ever been,” said Boeheim, who staved off his family’s annual trip to Disney World for at least another week with the victory. “We’ve played very good defense all year long but these two games it’s been about as good as it’s ever been.”
On Thursday, Syracuse’s assistant coaches had joked that they had beaten Indiana with a 3-2-2 zone, sneaking extra men onto the court. It looked like that again Saturday.
“When you shoot 12 of 53 it isn’t as simple as saying that you weren’t making shots,” Marquette Coach Buzz Williams said. “When we get beat, we get beat. I thought they were great from start to finish.”
Actually, Syracuse’s offense was hardly overwhelming — the Orange shot 38 percent — but it didn’t need to be any better than that. Every time Marquette got the ball into what appeared to be a gap in the zone, two players in orange popped up to surround the ball, except on those occasions when three of them converged.
Syracuse didn’t score a field goal during the first 5 minutes 36 seconds of the second half. And yet when guard Brandon Triche finally got inside to break the drought, the lead had gone from six at halftime to seven. It built steadily from there.
Carter-Williams finished a remarkable week by playing 37 minutes and scoring 12 points while grabbing eight rebounds, handing out six assists and making five steals. That, though, was only a small part of the story.
Seven days ago, during Syracuse’s win over California in the round of 32, Carter-Williams’s family’s home in Massachusetts burned down. Carter-Williams knew something was wrong when he looked up into the stands during a TV timeout early in the second half and saw his mother crying. Right away, he went to assistant coach Mike Hopkins.
“He said: ‘Coach, what’s going on, what’s going on? My mother’s crying. You have to find out what’s going on,’ ” Hopkins said. “I had no clue so I sent someone up there to find out what it was. She just said to tell Michael everything was okay. Then, after the game, she told him.”
Carter-Williams’s family was at Verizon Center on Saturday. All week, he had said repeatedly that he just wanted to give them all something to feel good about. He and his teammates certainly did that. The last three weeks have been redemption for a team and a school that felt as if it had been trampled on at the end of the regular season.
When Boeheim was asked about the Georgetown game on Wednesday, he said — un-smiling — “I have no memory of that game.” Saturday, he conceded that he remembered it.
“What I remember is that I forgot to set my clock ahead [for daylight savings time] the next day and I got to practice a little late and when I walked in they were playing four-on-four and going really hard,” he said. “That made me feel good. That was a really good thing. It got us started back in the right direction.”
Boeheim has one of those coaching memories that locks in everything about basketball. He told his players the story of the 1985 Villanova team that got blown out in its last regular season game (at home) and came back to win the national championship. A week later, after a 16-point lead turned into a 17-point loss to Louisville in the Big East title game, he took an opposite tack from what his players would normally expect.
“He didn’t tell them how bad they were the last 16 minutes,” Hopkins told them. “He pointed out how good they were the first 24: ‘That’s how good you can be. I think they heard him.”
As Boeheim walked down the hallway back to his locker room an hour after the game, someone asked if he was tempted to declare Verizon Center closed before he headed to the Final Four and then on to the ACC next season.
“Absolutely not,” he said, laughing. “I’m not going there.”
He didn’t need to. The nets he was taking home with him said it all.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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Feinstein: O’Toole comes full circle
Feinstein: Boeheim says he isn’t going anywhere
Photos: Scenes from the tournament