ATLANTA -- Things came apart miserably for Syracuse on Saturday night. Let's run down the breakdown.
First, Michael Carter-Williams fouled out with 1:14 left in the second half. Syracuse was trailing 55-49 at the time. Really tough break to lose an eventual first-round draft pick, your best player, with 74 seconds left in your season. But that was only the first of the worst of it. Then, nearly a minute later, four-year starter Brandon Triche got the hook with his fifth foul following a sketchy charge call. That came with 19.4 to go in a 58-56 game, Michigan's advantage.
So, with 20 seconds left, in went redshirt freshman Trevor Cooney. Cooney has had a few nice moments this year; he played an important role in a win over Georgetown at Madison Square Garden three weeks back. And so the play call here was to get James Southerland -- who'd hit a big 3 a few plays before -- a shot in the post. Southerland was clearly Syracuse's best option and so, of course, he was locked up.
The best option was no longer any option.
"I lost James and had to make a choice," Cooney said. "I went at the rim right away. I didn't want to waste any time."
Cooney, who was downtrodden but not apologetic about the choice, drove to the hoop to try to extend the game, to get two possessions to Syracuse if possible. It ended badly, a contested shot near the vicinity of the rim that never had any chance of going in. And, just like that, came Syracuse's first loss in a national semifinal in school history.
The loss stings for Syracuse because Michigan was certainly inviting the Orange to hang around and steal this game. Trey Burke had a bad night and, in fact, missed one of two free throws just before this play, giving SU a shot to tie the game.
"We were trying to get James," Boeheim said. "They switched on it. Trevor had no choice. That was it. He had no choice. He did the best he could in that situation."
Cooney said Boeheim told him afterward that he made the right call. It's just a tough one to swallow because it looked so bad. Endings in sports are often botched more often than they are beautiful. In between interviews in the locker room, Cooney intermittently accepted a couple of gracious and hearty hugs from teammates, managers and coaches.
"He works harder than any guy I've been around since I got here," assistant coach Gerry McNamara said. "Down three, you've gotta make a play. It was soft and he went quick, which was just as important."
McNamara recalled a play from his freshman year in a game at Pittsburgh. With time running out, he drove left to the paint, put up a shot and missed rim entirely. Only he had a teammate to put the shot back in, unlike Cooney on Saturday night. McNamara said he's as close with Cooney as any other player on the team.
Carter-Williams supported his teammate and said he'd have probably made the same play in the same spot. He also said he expects Cooney to step into the role next year as a terrific guard who will be able to handle the responsibility.
Triche accepted the reality of the situation, even in immediate hindsight. He blamed himself for three of the four Michigan 3s that fell in the first half. And when his foul-out came, there was a bit of uncertainty on Triche's end regarding Cooney having to step up in a big moment.
"It's like, who are we gonna put in, right?" he said. "[Cooney hadn't] played for five minutes, and you don't expect a miracle there. I have faith in him, but the odds were against us."
Triche put more blame on himself and said he actually should have been more aggressive throughout the game -- something that Cooney clearly was on that critical possession and decision.
On Saturday night, Cooney took only three shots, played only five minutes. I don't put the loss on him, and neither did his teammates. But as everyone got out of their uniforms and headed toward the offseason, no player looked as beaten by it all in that locker room as Cooney.