CHICAGO -- Syracuse's best talent was huddled in the southwest corner of the United Center on Sunday night, dressed in fitted sweatpants and white long-sleeved shirts that read "Always Reppin." C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas played for Jim Boeheim in a Final Four only three years ago, but on this night they were reduced to fans, frozen in disbelief that this was happening again.
Tyler Ennis was behind them with his phone in the air, documenting a moment no one would have ever believed as recently as two weeks ago. In a just world, Syracuse never would have made the NCAA Tournament with the lowest RPI (No. 72) ever for a team granted an at-large bid. In a reasonable one, the Orange's 16-point second half deficit to college basketball's most consistently excellent defense would have ended an already stunning run in the Elite Eight.
Now here was Syracuse, celebrating a miracle comeback within a miracle season, headed to the Final Four for the fifth time in Boeheim's brilliant career. Maybe Fair, Christmas and Ennis should have known better, but the trio looked just as floored as everyone else.
"It happened so fast," standout freshman wing Malachi Richardson said after the game. "From the time we started pressing to the time the game was over, it really felt like it was 30 seconds. I was like, wow, we're really about to win. "
Virginia is the last team you'd expect to collapse like this. This is a program that makes a 14-point halftime lead feel like it's 25, a team playing with grown men when everyone else is sending out kids. Their best players, Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon, are 23 years old. There's no freshmen in the rotation. They're distinct by playing with a certain cohesion that only comes after years of continuity.
Virginia is supposed to be the team that suffocates you, first with a glacial pace that ranked dead last out of 351 D1 teams, then with mistake-proof ball handling that ranked No. 14 in turnover percentage. This was Virginia's year. Cruelly paired in Michigan State's regional again only to see the Spartans go down in the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Set to be rewarded for consistency, with a victory Sunday giving them 30 wins for the third straight year.
There was only one problem, the same one that's been clawing at the side of the NCAA and programs all over the country since 1977. Boeheim wouldn't let it happen, ruining a happy narrative with an elastic zone and a bold tactical change that swung the direction of the game and sparked Syracuse's first win against a Tony Bennett team.
"This is the best comeback we've ever had," declared Boeheim on the podium at center stage, with an arena full of people cheering his bold proclamations like he was on the campaign trail for the presidency.
Boeheim didn't need another bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume, because he's already in the Hall of Fame. Regardless, this feels like the most improbable of his fifth Final Four runs, both in the moment and when taken in as a whole.
First, the moment: when Virginia point guard London Perrentes uncorked his sixth three of the night with 9:33 left to give the Hoos a 54-39 lead, Boeheim responded with a full court press. It seemed like a desperation move for a team defined by its 2-3 zone, but it worked against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and it worked again on Sunday. By the time Boeheim waved off the press with five minutes left, 'Cuse had a one-point lead.
Perhaps it's even more surprising that Syracuse was even here in the first place. Boeheim was infamously suspended nine games in the middle of this season as part of last year's wide-ranging sanctions, a stretch that included a loss to lowly St. John's and finished 4-5. A loss to Pitt in their first ACC Tournament game gave the Orange five defeats in their last six games entering Selection Sunday. Most people thought MAAC regular season champ Monmouth deserved to make the tournament instead.
One thing is for sure: Monmouth or anyone else left on the wrong wide of the bubble wouldn't have had a player like Richardson. The last time Richardson was in Chicago was one year ago to the day for the McDonald's All-American Game. Now the freshman was catching fire in the second half to turn in one of the most memorable performances of the tournament, scoring 21 of his 23 points after halftime and going on a 7-0 run by himself during one stretch that took 'Cuse from down one to up four.
None of this makes any sense. Virginia was 68-0 under Bennett when leading by double-digits at halftime. Only three double-digit seeds had ever made the Final Four. This particular Syracuse team was playing its worst ball at the most important time of the year until it did a 180 to shock the country.
"Nothing," said freshman Tyler Lydon.
"A lot has changed," said senior Trevor Cooney.
In a way, it's the perfect summation of this Final Four run, one that's difficult to comprehend and even harder to explain. Syracuse was finished on Selection Sunday and then they were finished again in the Elite Eight. Somehow, someway, Boeheim is still standing.
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