By Adam Rossow
Eleven years after Illinois overcame a 15-point deficit to beat Arizona the last time Chicago hosted a regional final, another team clad in orange and navy mounted its own come-from-behind charge to advance to the Final Four.
Trailing top-seeded Virginia by 15 points midway through the second half, Syracuse staged an improbable run to shock the Cavaliers 68-62 at the United Center on Sunday.
“I’ve never been prouder in all my 40 years as a coach of a basketball team,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
Two nights after they were six points behind late in the game against Gonzaga, the Orange (23-13) again rallied using the full-court press against the Cavaliers. With less than 10 minutes remaining, Syracuse fought back from a 54-39 deficit, its pressure defense limiting Virginia to only two field goals and eight points the rest of the game.
The normally sure-handed Cavaliers entered the Elite Eight averaging slightly more than nine turnovers per game. But the Orange’s pressure defense forced them into 13, including four during the 25-4 run that gave Syracuse a six-point lead with three-and-a-half minutes remaining.
“It was in our grasp, but credit goes to Syracuse for some of the plays they made,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. “I think some of our points off turnovers probably cost us.”
Freshman Malachi Richardson was the offensive catalyst during the Syracuse comeback, scoring 21 of his game-high 23 points after halftime. The rookie forward tallied the final seven points of the pivotal run, including a 3-pointer while closely guarded by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, which sent the pro-Syracuse crowd into a frenzy.
“I wasn’t really worried about who was guarding me,” said Richardson, who was named most outstanding player of the Midwest Regional.
With the win, Syracuse advances to its sixth Final Four, where the Orange will play another ACC counterpart, the University of North Carolina, in a national semifinal in Houston on Saturday. The win also earns Boeheim the fifth Final Four of his four-decade tenure and the second in the last four years.
It was a surprise: In the regular season, the Orange lost five of their final six games and barely squeaked into the NCAA tournament.
Two weeks later, the team is two victories away from cutting down the nets in Houston and winning the second national title in program history.
“We were playing with house money, and there was no pressure at that point [down 15 points],” said Gbinije, who finished with 11 points and six assists. “At that point we just wanted to go out swinging.”
After a slow start, Virginia (29-8) looked poised to advance to its first Final Four in three decades. Their tough defense was on display throughout the entire first half and senior guard London Perrantes was unstoppable from beyond the arc, making five 3-pointers.
Holding with a 35-21 advantage at intermission, the Cavaliers were 20 minutes away from that elusive national semifinal berth. But the Orange just wouldn’t go away. Now they are the team making Final Four plans in Houston, and Virginia is left wondering what might have been with a few more minutes of offensive execution.
“The times that we did break the press,” Brogdon said, “we just didn’t finish the play at the end.”
Perrantes led the Cavaliers with 18 points, while Brogdon ended his career with 12 points and 7 assists on 2-for-14 shooting.
The Orange become the first No. 10 seed in NCAA tournament history to advance to the national semifinals. They are also the first double-digit seed to qualify for the Final Four since No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth in 2011.
“I wasn’t planning on getting to the Final Four,” Boeheim said. “We tell the players it’s one game. You play one game and if you can win just one game, you get another chance. They’ve done that.”