WASHINGTON -- Michael Carter-Williams and his teammates climbed the ladder and clipped the nets on Saturday afternoon at the Verizon Center, on the same rims that they blistered with bricks exactly three weeks ago to the day. The Syracuse Orange managed just 39 points in the regular-season finale against Georgetown and returned home with their heads down, embarrassed, humiliated and searching for answers.
"It felt lifeless," Syracuse senior James Southerland said after the setback to the Hoyas on March 9. "We couldn't believe it. We didn't even know we played a basketball game. We're not a team that scores 39 points."
|More on Syracuse-Marquette|
|Elite Eight previews|
|More college basketball coverage|
The Orange are more apt to be the team that holds a team to 39, and that's exactly what happened on Saturday afternoon as Jim Boeheim earned his fourth trip to the Final Four following a 55-39 victory over fellow Big East program Marquette in the Elite Eight. It's been a decade since Boeheim was the last one standing in the sport's grand event, when Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to their lone national title back in 2003.
However, Boeheim has been through plenty since he cut down the nets 10 years ago. There's the Bernie Fine scandal, the ongoing NCAA investigation, the season-ending suspension of Fab Melo a year ago, a report about the school violating its internal drug-testing policy and academic issues into Southerland's status this season that forced him to miss six games in the middle of the year. He called one national reporter an idiot earlier this season and also told another to "go get their Pulitzer someplace else."
Now Boeheim has another chance, likely at 68 years old his final shot to win another national title. His first opportunity came way back in 1987 when Syracuse lost to Indiana in the championship contest on a Keith Smart buzzer-beater. He got another shot in 1996 with an unexpected appearance, but the Orange came up short against Kentucky on the final day of the season.
"The first time I went, we had a chance to win and it took me 16 years to get over it," Boeheim said. "If you lose in that game, you don't get over it."
Boeheim, his wife and three children were slated to head down to Disney on Sunday morning on a 7 a.m. flight for a few days of sun and amusement park hopping. The last nine years the team had come up short in its quest to get back to the Final Four, so why not plan a trip? The odds were certainly in his favor -- especially on March 9 when his team took that pelting on this same floor against Georgetown. But somehow this team came together, it began with a strong Big East tourney run to the championship game, and has continued with one stellar defensive effort after another in the NCAA tourney.
Sophomore Carter-Williams and teammates have finally showed the resiliency and togetherness that was lacking for much of the season. Carter-Williams' home back in Massachusetts burned down while he was out in San Jose knocking off California to advance to the Sweet 16. The long and deceptively quick floor leader responded with arguably his most impressive performance of the season, with 24 points, a trio of 3-pointers and just one turnover in an upset against top-seeded Indiana. Two days later, he littered the stat sheet with 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the victory over the Golden Eagles.
There will be no trip to Disney now. Instead, Boeheim and his family are headed to Atlanta.
"Even my kids are happy," Boeheim said.
That wasn't the case a month or so ago when Boeheim seemed even more ornery than usual. His team had risen all the way to No. 3 in the national polls in mid-December and remained a constant in the top 10 until the second half of Big East play, when the Orange dropped seven of their final dozen contests. The regular-season finale, though, was a visual no one expected. Georgetown against Syracuse, two Big East founding members, in their final matchup as conference foes. There was buildup, all the hype. This was set to be a war.
Instead, it was a complete joke after Georgetown won by 22 points and held the Orange to just 39.
No one is laughing anymore at this team.
These guys aren't playing for themselves now. Boeheim said that the Georgetown loss didn't have anything to do with it, but Southerland admitted it was the "turning point" of the season and Carter-Williams agreed.
"We felt bad," Southerland said. "Embarrassed."
On Saturday, it was Marquette that walked off the Verizon Center court searching for answers. The Golden Eagles made just 12 field goals the entire game, shot 27 percent from the field and 3 of 24 from beyond the arc. In the three previous tournament contests, the opposition had made 31 percent of its shots from the field and 16 percent of its shots from beyond the arc.
The 2-3 zone has improved. Former Orange star guard Gerry McNamara, now an assistant under Boeheim, said it takes time -- and this group has caught on to it and is peaking at exactly the ideal moment. Syracuse will get the winner of the Michigan-Florida contest on Sunday with a chance for Boeheim to play in his fourth national title contest. This team is vastly different than the one that clipped the nets a decade ago, with more balance, numerous weapons and lacking a true superstar.
Boeheim won his 920th career game against Marquette on Saturday, and the trip to Disney World will be put on hold, at least for another 10 days.
"The only ride I go on is Soarin'," he said.
He doesn't need to go to Florida for that ride.