I would admit that I was very concerned about this game knowing Arinze Onuaku was not going to be present. It is not that I do not trust the rest of the squad, but that does put the Orange into a very short bench.
The worst nightmare for any Syracuse fan occurred at 8:58 in the first half when Rick Jackson picked up his third foul, and the game was close. Gonzaga’s 7’ center Robert Sacre and 6’7” Elias Harris had already tasted a lot of success by that point in the game, and I was hoping the Orange would be able to make it to halftime without the game running away from them.
A strange thing happened over that nearly nine minutes stretch. The Orange pulled away from the Bulldogs to take a 47-32 half time lead. How did that happen?
Really, it should not have been a surprise. The team that has played like a team all year did what they did best, and played ‘shut it down’ defense. Add that in with their two best players, Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins, stepping it up and pouring in the points, and the familiar recipe makes this much easier to understand.
Brandon Triche has re-emerged, which was really a necessity for Syracuse to do well in the NCAA tournament. He played aggressive on offense and defense, and it appears his confidence is back. We tend to think of Triche as having struggled all year, but the young freshman is hitting 41% of this three point attempts this year.
DaShonte Riley was admirable in his 15 minute stint. He did foul out, had a few turnovers and did not get a rebound. On the positive side, he had a great pass to Scoop Jardine, and did his job of clogging up the middle of the zone.
Now I did not forget about Wesley Johnson’s performance. The Big East Player of the Year showed the rest of the country why Syracuse fans think he is one of the best in the country with a very smooth 31 points and 14 rebounds. Johnson was scoring from long range (4 of 6 on three point shots), mid jumpers and on some nice dunks. He was leaping high to grab his fourteen rebounds.
Johnson’s 31 points was the first thirty point effort by an Orangeman since Jonny Flynn put 34 on UConn during the legendary six overtime Big East game on March 12, 2009. It was the first 30 point NCAA effort by a Syracuse player since Gerry McNamara had his spectacular 43 point effort against Brigham Young on March 18, 2004.
Johnson joins a list of seven other Syracuse players who have scored 30+ points in an NCAA Tournament game: Gary Clark, Rudy Hackett, Rony Seikaly, Adrian Autry, John Wallace, Carmelo Anthony and McNamara.
The Orange are now at 30-4, the most wins since their Championship season of 2002-03 when they went 30-5. This is the second most wins ever for a single season, joining the 2003 team and the 1989 team. The record is 31 for the 1986-1987 National Champion Runner Up Orangemen, who went 31-7.
The senior class of Syracuse broke the school record for most wins in consecutive seasons, now standing at 58 (28 last year, 30 and going this year). An impressive accomplishment for two hard working fifth year seniors: Rautins and Onuaku. The previous record had been 57, which was held by the 1987 class (Howard Triche and Greg Monroe), who won 26 games their junior year and 31 their senior year, and by the 1988 class (Rony Seikaly and Derek Brower), who had 31 wins their junior year, and 26 their senior year.
With all the upsets in the tournament this year, the path really has not been cleared for the Orangemen yet. I am not too worried, if Onuaku returns, because this team can play with and beat anyone when they have their game going.
I do wonder how the Orangemen played an 8 seed who was ranked #22 in the AP (Gonzaga), and a 5 seed next (Butler), who is ranked 11th in the AP. A 22nd ranked team should be around a 6 seed (not an 8), and an 11th ranked team should be around a 3 seed (not a 5). It does not seem like the West was "favorably" loaded. But as I said, it really will not matter to these Orange players.